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92 F597m 59-0768^ 

Maurois, Andre W^ 

The life of Sir Alexander 
Fleming, discoverer of penicil- 
Dut-ton C1959] 





DATE DUE 



JUL15 



1959 





THE LIFE OF 
SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 



Some other books by Andre Mattrois 

BERNARD QUESNAY 

THE ISLAND OF THE ARTICOLES 

BYRON 

COLONEL BRAMBLE 

A HISTORY OP ENGLAND 

THE THOUGHT-READING MACHINE 

CHATEAUBRIAND 

CALL NO MAN HAPPY 

A HISTORY OF FRANCE 

THE QUEST FOR PROUST 

L&LIA: THE LIFE OF GEORGE SAND 

VICTOR HUGO 

THREE MUSKETEERS 






Sir Alexander Fleming: a portrait by Karsh 



ANDRE MAUROIS 



THE LIFE OF 

ID; /A\ 




DISCOVERER OF PENICILLIN 



Translated from the French by 
GERARD HOPKINS 

and \vith an Introduction by 
PROFESSOR ROBERT GRUIGKSHANK 

Director of the Wright-Fleming Institute of Microbiology 



E. P. BUTTON & CO., INC. 
PUBLISHERS, NEW YORK 



FIRST PUBLISHED IN U.S. A., 1959 
BY E. P DUTTON & CO., INC. 



Translated from the French: 
La Vie de Sir Alexander Fleming 

*959 by Andr6 Maurols 

English version (?) 1959 by Jonathan Cape Ltd. 
American version 1959 by E, P. Dutton & Co., Inc. 



No part of this book may be reproduced in any form 
without permission in writing from the publishers, 
except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief 
passages in connection with a review written for 
inclusion in a magazine^ newspaper or broadcast. 



FIRST EDITION 



Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 59-5817 



CONTENTS 

INTRODUCTION 9 

FOREWORD II 

I IN THE BEGINNING WAS SCOTLAND 17 

II THE TWISTS IN THE PATH 30 

III THE NATURE OF WRIGHT 39 

IV FLEMING AND WRIGHT 54 
V THE PRENTICE YEARS 66 

VI THE WAR OF 1914-18 83 

VH CHILDREN AND MEN 98 

vin FIRST HOPE: THE LYSOZYME 109 

IX THE MOULD JUICE 123 

X PENICILLIN J5J[ 
XI A NEW MAGIC BULLET: THE SULPHONAMIDES 143 

XII THE OXFORD TEAM 159 

XHI WAR AND GLORY 176 

XIV SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING H^ 

XV THE NOBEL PRIZE 2<>6 

XVI ENVOY EXTRAORDINARY 221 

XVn THE SILENCES OF PROFESSOR FLEMING 24! 

XVTH THE DELPHIC ORACLE 246 

XDC TOO SHORT A HAPPINESS 2&O 

EPILOGUE 274 

BIBLIOGRAPHY 28l 

INDEX 287 



5 9 07 68 4. 



ILLUSTRATIONS 

Sir Alexander Fleming. A portrait by Karsh Frontispiece 

Fleming at the door of the little school-house of Loudoun; 
as a young clerk in the City about 1900; and at work at 
29 York Street facing page 32 

Fleming as Private 606 : a cartoon by Ronald Gray, 1910; 
and in the hospital laboratory where the discovery of 
penicillin was made, about 1925 33 

Captain Fleming in the laboratory at Boulogne 96 

Tears embedded in the form of a T in agar which was then 
flooded with a coccus 96 

Lady (Sareen) Fleming (died 1949), and Robert; arid one 
of Sir Alexander s own paintings done at Barton Mills 97 

Fleming s drawings of the inhibitory effects of lysozyme and 
egg white on the growth of bacteria 128 

Fleming s original laboratory notes on the first use of peni 
cillin to cure bacterial infection in man; a colony of the 
mould penicillium notatum on solid medium; and the mould 
as seen under a microscope 129 

The original mould growth of penidllium notatum, and 
Fleming s drawing and notes on its anti-bacterial action 
on staphylococci 192 

Fleming printing photographs of bacterial plates in the 
darkroom of the Wright-Fleming Institute; and a typical 
photograph of a colony of penicillium showing its inhibit 
ing effect on the growth of various micro-organisms 193 

Florey, Chain and Fleming at the presentation of the Nobel 
Prize by the King of Sweden 224 

Fleming and Sir Almroth Wright 224 



ILLUSTRATIONS 

The little lab. at The Dhoon; and the photograph of it 

which Sir Alexander inscribed for Amalia Voureka 225 

Lady (Amalia) Fleming; and with Sir Alexander in Rome, 

September 1953 272 

Alexander Fleming as a young laboratory worker; and in 

his last years between pages 272 and 273 

Sir Alexander Fleming in 1954 in his last laboratory at the 
Wright-Fleming Institute. A photograph by Douglas 
Glass facing page 273 

On the endpapers are reproduced some of the paintings Fleming made with bacterial 
pigments (seepage 153) 



8 



INTRODUCTION 

THE biography of a great and famous man requires much 
research and study by the biographer, not only regarding the 
subject of his portrait but also about the environment in which his 
hero has grown up and lived. We are today increasingly conscious, 
both in health and illness, of the important influences which 
heredity, on the one hand, and environmental factors, on the 
other, have upon our lives and destinies. M, Andr Maurois has 
painted this picture of Sir Alexander Fleming against the back 
grounds of boyhood on a Scottish hill farm and manhood in the 
bacteriological laboratories of a London medical school. It would 
be idle to deny the effects of early experiences on the Ayrshire 
farm or of Sir Almroth Wright and others in the Inoculation 
Department at St. Mary s Hospital in moulding the life and shap 
ing the destiny of the discoverer of penicillin, while he, himself, 
and others have been impressed by the curious concatenation of 
circumstances which seemed to direct his footsteps. 

But these outside influences and, later, the glittering prizes and 
the adulation of kings and commoners in many lands could not 
mask the innate qualities of a man who, through all his trials and 
triumphs, remained staunchly true to himself and to his ancestry. 
For Fleming had, to a remarkable degree, those qualities which 
we attribute to the Scots: a capacity for hard and sustained work, 
a combative spirit which refuses to admit defeat, a steadfastness 
and loyalty which creates respect and affection, and a true humility 
which protects against pretentiousness and pride. He had other 
great gifts which helped to make him an outstanding scientist: 
keen curiosity and perceptiveness, an excellent memory, technical 
inventiveness and skill of a highly artistic order, and the mental 
and physical toughness that is characteristic of great men in many 
walks of life. 

The picture of the man and the scientist emerges for us from the 
background of laboratories and test-tubes and pipettes, antiseptics 
and antibiotics, Paddington and Chelsea and the country house 
in Suffolk, Greece and Spain and the Americas, The appraisals 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

and letters of friends and colleagues are interspersed with his own 
terse remarks in his diaries, notebooks and letters; and through It 
all goes the thread of continuous effort to lay bare the truth about 
the body s fight with infection, which was Fleming s abiding 
interest. It is a fascinating story for all of us, and Fleming s part 
in it, leading up to the discovery of penicillin, will surely never be 
forgotten. It was left to others to develop penicillin as a lifesaving 
drug, but Alexander Fleming and penicillin will always be linked 
together in the public mind and his name will be remembered 
with those of other great men, like Louis Pasteur and Joseph 
Lister, who have made major contributions to the conquest of 
disease. 

As his colleague and successor, I salute this fine portrait of & 
great man. 

ROBERT CRUICKSHANK 



IO 



FOREWORD 

MY choice of subject may seem surprising. I have written about 
poets and novelists and men of action; never about research- 
workers. That in itself was a good reason for doing so. In an age 
when science is transforming human life for better or for worse, it 
is natural that we should take an interest in the scientist, in the 
way his mind works, in the nature of his investigations. 

But why Fleming? I might answer, plausibly enough, that the 
importance of his discovery was sufficiently great to determine 
my choice. As it turns out, however, the initial decision was not 
mine at all. In November 1955 I received a letter from Lady 
Fleming in which she said that she very much wanted me to write 
a life of her husband, who had died in the early part of that year. 
The suggestion excited me and I replied that I was prepared to 
discuss it. 

Lady Fleming came to see me in Paris. Being, herself, a doctor 
and a bacteriologist, she was able to explain very exactly the 
nature of the problems with which I should have to deal. She 
promised to make her husband s papers available to me. But, per 
suasive though she was and tempted though I felt to try my hand 
on so unfamiliar a subject, I was still uncertain about my ability 
to do what she wanted and asked for more time in which to 
think over the proposal. 

There were good reasons for my hesitation. For one thing, a 
scientist, I thought, would produce a far better book than I could 
hope to and, for another, the character of Fleming, a silent and 
secretive man, would be difficult to portray. But difficulty is itself a 
challenge and I felt eager to accept it. Several French friends 
Professor Robert Debr and Professor Georges Portmann, who 
had known Fleming, as well as Dr Albert Delaunay of the Pasteur 
Institute, who promised to instruct me in such bacteriological 
knowledge as I should need were encouraging. 

I began my literary career as a young man with The Silences of 
Colonel Bramble, a taciturn Scot. There would, I felt, be a certain 
satisfying intellectual symmetry about writing, in my old age, The 
Silences of Professor Fleming. The two men had much the same 

ii 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

virtues, though in different forms* The mixture of quiet humour, of 
loyalty and independence, of reserve and intelligence, were precisely 
what I found attractive. To cut a long story short, I said *ye&*> 
I do not regret my decision. By studying at close range the 
methods and the way of life of those who are engaged in scientific 
research, I have learned a great deal. But there is more to it than 
that. I very soon realized that there was no lack of human drama 
in an existence which on the surface appeared to be remarkably 
uniform. The relationship between Fleming and his master, 
Almroth Wright, contained a number of dramatic elements. To 
live in a laboratory is to be one of a group, and this life I have done 
my best to describe. As to my hero, the better I got to know Mm, 
the more attractive did I find him. 

I should never have been able to collect the necessary evidence 
and documentary material but for the unwearying and generous 
help given to me by Lady Fleming, Thanks to her, I was able, on 
my visits to London, to meet almost all those scientists, doctors 
and friends who had played a part in Fleming s career. Among 
them I was surprised and delighted to renew acquaintance with 
Dr G. W. B. James to whom the *Dr O Grady* of my first book 
owed so many of his paradoxical and brilliant ideas. The threads 
of which our lives are woven sometimes cross in the most un 
expected, strange and helpful manner, 

To mention by name all those who have been so kind as to tell 
me, to write to me, or otherwise to record their memories, would 
make too long a list. They will be found mentioned in the course 
of this book wherever I have occasion to quote from them. Let me 
here express the gratitude I feeL First and foremost I wish to thank 
Lady Fleming, but for whom this book would never have been 
written; and, next in order, Mr Robert Fleming, Sir Alexander s 
brother, who has provided me with many invaluable details of his 
early life. I am no less beholden to Dr Albert Delaunay who not 
only undertook, with great patience, my instruction in a field of 
knowledge which for me was strange and difficult, but also read 
more than once my manuscript and proofs* Finally I owe a debt 
to Professor Cruickshank who, as Fleming s successor as Director 
of the Wright-Fleming Institute, has done me the honour of 
writing the Introduction to this volume. 

A. AdL 



To 
AMALIA FLEMING 



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the Society of 
Authors and to the Public Trustee for permission to 
quote from The Doctor s Dilemma by George Bernard 
Shaw and from the Preface to that play; to the Editor 
of the British Medical Journal for permission to reprint 
his editorial on p. 276; to Karsh of Ottawa for per 
mission to reproduce the frontispiece portrait; to the 
Keystone Press for the photograph of Lady Fleming 
facing p. 264; and to Douglas Glass for the last photo 
graph facing p. 265. 



THE LIFE OF 
SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 



CHAPTER ONE 

IN THE BEGINNING WAS SCOTLAND 

As a good Scot, I Was in my youth taught to be cautious. FLEMING 

f | 1HE Scots are not Englishmen. Far from it. They have often 
I governed England; they have given to Great Britain many 
JL of her leading men; they have ranked among her greatest 
soldiers. But they think of themselves as belonging to a different 
race, and with good reason. The Scottish nation is a mixture of 
Celts from Ireland and Wales, of Angles and Scandinavians, of 
Teutons and men from Flanders. For a long time it had a close 
connection with France. Scotland, at first Catholic, then Presby 
terian, has always refused to adopt the liturgy and hierarchy of 
the Anglican Church. In the sixteenth century, and again in the 
seventeenth, in circumstances of the utmost gravity, the Scottish 
nobles, bourgeoisie and peasants signed a solemn Covenant in 
which they promised to be faithful to their Church. In the nine 
teenth century the spirit of the Covenanters was still very much 
alive. Though Presbyterianism had become less narrow, it was 
still austere, The Sabbath was strictly observed. Scotland was 
never touched by the raffish scepticism which had been so 
prevalent among the English aristocracy of the eighteenth 
century. 

Poverty, combined with severity of manners, produced a race of 
dour, courageous men. The soil of their country was far from rich, 
means of communication were largely lacking, the climate was 
harsh. A Scottish farm could support only a single family. The 
younger sons left home, first for the University where they lived 
frugally sometimes off the oatmeal which they took with them in 
a bag slung over their shoulders, and later for England, where 
many of them achieved brilliant success by dint of sheer hard 
work. Their austere and penniless childhood had made them 
economical. In England their stinginess was a standing joke, as, 
too, was their language, thick-sown with Celtic words, and r s 

17 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

which they rolled with the noise of pebbles in a mountain torrent. 
The English laughed, too, at the absence of humour with which 
(so they said) these northern immigrants were afflicted. It took 
hours of hard work, they maintained, to drive a joke into a 
Scotsman s head. 

This picture was very inaccurate. The Scots have their own 
sense of humour, which is utterly unlike that of the English, who 
love long stories full of mockery and sentiment. The Scots, on the 
other hand, delight in a humour which is laconic, dry, vigorous 
and expressed with a perfectly straight face. Their reputation for 
niggardliness, too, is only in part deserved. Careful with their 
pennies they may be, but they are generous with their millions, 
when they have made them often at the expense of the English. 
In their country, hospitality is a noble tradition. Over against the 
rigid Covenanters must be set the romantic figures who haunt the 
pages of Sir Walter Scott, their appeal heightened by their 
picturesque equipment kilts of varied and famous tartans; 
bagpipes; the glengarry and the long-haired sporran* The Scots 
have always been rash and gallant fighters, from the days of 
Bannockburn to the two world wars. A fire burns deep within 
them which they do their best to conceal. 

It is customary to distinguish Highlander from Lowlander, 
though, in fact, the two types have, to a great extent, become 
merged as the result of migrations and intermarriages* The Low- 
lander, like the Highlander, is emotional, romantic and passion 
ately Scottish, and more than anything else he dreads giving 
himself away; whence come his stubborn silences and his dislike 
of exhibiting his feelings even when especially when they are 
strong. This attitude has, no doubt, been intensified by English 
mockery. We know from Boswell how that eminent Englishman, 
Dr Johnson, spoke of the Scots. His sallies were, no doubt, the 
product of a wish to amuse rather than of malevolence: still, jokes 
at their expense have had the effect of creating in the Scots a 
definite inferiority complex. That is why they try to make them 
selves less vulnerable by maintaining an outward show of un 
concern and secretiveness. It accounts, too, for something in them 
which amounts almost to aggressiveness. The Lowlanders are 
given to teasing. They do not take easily to praise and are fonder 
of pointing out faults than acclaiming successes- According to their 

18 



IN THE BEGINNING WAS SCOTLAND 

code, eulogy should be preceded by disparagement. They are 
mentally stiff-jointed, which to some extent explains their liking 
for whisky, which is a great loosener. 

To sum up a fine race, brought up in a hard school, richly 
endowed with strange traditions, secretly romantic and cautiously 
touchy. 



Fleming is a common name in Scotland. It was, no doubt, 
originally given to the weavers and cultivators who fled overseas 
from religious persecution in the Low Countries. The grandfather 
of our Fleming, Hugh, was born on the family farm of Low 
Ploughland in the County of Lanark in 1773. He married the 
daughter of a neighbouring farmer, Mary Craig. The Craigs had 
been settled at High Ploughland* from far back, as is clear from 
the fact that a Craig carried the banner of Avondale at the battle of 
Drumclog in 1679. 

Children came thick and fast, with the result that these farming 
families swarmed , some of their members moving to London, 
others to the neighbouring counties. Hugh Fleming, Alexander s 
father, had leased from the Earl of Loudoun a holding of eight 
hundred acres, called Lochfield. It lay close to the meeting-point 
of three counties, Lanark, Ayr and Renfrew, though it was actually 
in Ayrshire of which it formed one of the boundaries. It was on 
high ground in a remote countryside. The nearest house was a 
mile distant and, since the public road went no farther, few people 
passed that way. The climate made the growing of corn impossible, 
but the cultivation of oats and forage and the grazing of sheep and 
cattle provided a livelihood for the hard-working family. The house 
was approached over a chain of green hills interspersed with 
winding streams. Behind it lay a wide expanse of moorland. 
Dwarfed by these vast and treeless distances, a man should surely 
come to have a proper sense of the world s greatness and his own 
humility. 

Hugh Fleming had married twice. His first wife bore him five 
children, one of whom died in babyhood. The names of the 
surviving four were Jane, Hugh (the eldest son who would inherit 
the farm), Tom and Mary. The father married again when he 
was sixty, this time, Grace Morton, a neighbour s daughter, by 

19 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

whom he had four more children: Grace, John, Alexander (known 
as Alec) who was born in 1881, and Robert. 

All that the younger boys remembered of their father was a 
kindly old man with grey hair who was always ill and spent his 
time in a chair by the fire. He had had a stroke and knew that he 
would not live long. He felt a deep concern about the future of his 
family. Hugh junior and his stepmother ran the farm and Tom had 
left home for the University of Glasgow, where he was studying 
medicine. What was to happen to John, Alec and Robert? Would 
their elder brothers help them? His knowledge of Scottish tradition 
reassured him on this point: of course they would. His second wife, 
a remarkable woman, had succeeded in uniting the children of the 
two marriages in a common bond of affection. 

The young people were physically attractive, with vivid blue 
eyes, frank and open expressions, and a way of looking their 
fellows straight in the face. Alec, a sturdily built boy, with fair 
hair, an unusually high forehead and a sweet smile, was his 
mother s own son. He spent his days with his two brothers, John, 
his elder, and Robert, known as Bob, who was his junior by two 
years. All three of them enjoyed complete liberty, A large farm in 
the heart of the country makes a world rich in discoveries for lively 
boys with the gift of curiosity. When they were not at school, they 
explored the valleys and the moors. Nature, their first and best of 
teachers, developed their powers of observation. 

In the two rivers of their countryside, Glen Water and Loch 
Burn, they fished for trout and learned to know the habits of that 
wily fish. Loch Burn was little more than a stream, though fed by 
a strong head of water. It was the type of river loved by trout 
because it never dried up completely. On the moors there were 
hares and rabbits in the glens. The boys had no guns, but set off on 
their hunting expeditions accompanied by an old dog with a good 
nose who was adept at locating the dense turfs in which the 
rabbits hid. They slipped their arms in, Alec from one side, Bob 
from the other, and it was agreed between them that the one who 
could first lay hold of the animaTs hind-legs should have the right 
to claim it as his own. This playing at trappers demanded an 
unusual degree of speed and skill. 

They also employed another method which was their own 
invention. On fine summer days the rabbits left their burrows and 

20 



IN THE BEGINNING WAS SCOTLAND 

sheltered among the bushes. The boys walked slowly over the area 
which they had decided to beat. When they came upon a motion 
less rabbit, they pretended not to have seen it and continued to 
move forward with their heads raised. They had noticed that a 
rabbit never takes to flight so long as the hunter s eye does not 
meet its own. Then, just as they were passing the animal, they 
pounced upon it. No adult could have played that particular 
game, for his pounce would have been too slow. The boys, how 
ever, who at that time were very small, won every time. 

There was an abundance of birds on the hills, but partridges and 
grouse were regarded as sacred. The Earl of Loudoun made as 
much money out of his shooting rights as he did by farming. 
Spring brought peewits which nested on the pasture land. The 
boys had noticed that these birds prefer places where the cows feed 
to those cropped by the sheep, the reason being that where 
sheep have fed there are always scraps of wool left on the ground, 
in which the young birds get their feet caught. The grouse, on the 
contrary, will venture on to the sheep-runs because their young 
are stronger. 

The taking of a few peewits eggs was not forbidden, and these 
the boys could sell for fourpence apiece to the travelling salesmen 
who sent them to London where they were looked upon as great 
delicacies. In this way they managed to make a little pocket- 
money. But this looking for eggs, too, required keen observation 
and a knowledge of the fact that the mother-bird, when she sees 
a man" or an animal approaching, runs through the grass and goes 
some distance from her nest before flying off, in order to conceal 
the actual position of the nest from the intruder. John, Alec and 
Bob looked for the nests at a point well away from the place at 
which the hen had taken flight, and usually found the eggs, of 
which they took only a few so as not to destroy the species. 

The winters were hard. The Atlantic gales swept across the hills 
and covered the roads deep in snow which had to be shovelled 
away to enable the carts to fetch the necessary food. At night, 
when the wind was heavy with snow, this could be noted because 
of a changed note in its whistling. At such times, as soon as it was 
light, the iribors had to be searched for buried sheep. A yellow 
patch produced by their breathing made it possible for the seekers 
to find and rescue them. That, too, was one of nature s lessons. 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Experiences of this kind taught Alec Fleming how to apply his 
powers of reasoning to what he observed, and to act in accordance 
with his observations. 

When he grew older, he took part in the annual sheep-shearing 
day. Seven or eight men did the actual shearing, while another 
brought the sheep to them and yet another made the wool into 
bales. Alec helped in the rounding up of the animals. He loved the 
work. The countryman , he once said in later life, may have to 
work harder for his living than a townsman, but he has a man s 
life. He does not do the same thing day after day. 

He began to go to school when he was five. It was a small place 
about a mile from Lochfield and served the needs of the children 
of the surrounding farms. To get there, the boys went down into 
the valley in all weathers, crossed the river on a wooden bridge 
without a rail, clambered up the farther bank, and so reached the 
school. One day, John and Alec, caught in a sudden snow-squall, 
lost their way. When it was very cold, as Alec later recounted, 
their mother sometimes gave each of them two piping-hot potatoes 
to keep their hands warm during the walk and to provide them 
with a hot meal on their arrival. When it rained, they took a 
change of boots and stockings slung round their necks. On fine days 
they went to school barefooted. This caused them no embarrass 
ment, for, out of the twelve or fifteen pupils, nine were Flemings or 
their friends and neighbours, the Loudouns. 

There was only one teacher, a young woman of about twenty. 
She was in sole charge of a collection of children of all ages* Alec 
remembered two successive ones, Marion Stirling and Martha 
Aird. They must have been truly devoted to their calling, for 
how else would they have been willing to fill the post of teacher 
in so remote a spot? Discipline was elastic.. After the midday 
meal, when the weather permitted, the teacher took her class 
down to the river. So long as the children were enjoying them 
selves, she conveniently forgot the time. But this did not pre 
vent her teaching from being serious and efficient. 

Sometimes an inspector would climb the hill to the moorland 
school, and question the children. His trap could be seen from a 
long way off and, if it so happened that the party had lingered by 
the river when they should have been in school, mistress and pupils 
hurried back by a short cut, entered the class-room by a window at 

22 



IN THE BEGINNING WAS SCOTLAND 

the back, and were all in their places, the children at their desks, 
the mistress in front of her blackboard, looking very serious, by the 
time the inspector arrived. Everything went off well and the 
mistress was all smiles, which meant that she had been compli 
mented. She taught reading, history, geography and arithmetic, 

When the two young Flemings were, respectively, eight and ten, 
they moved on to the school at Darvel, the nearest town. But all 
through his life Alec maintained that the better part of his educa 
tion was what he had learned in the little moorland school, 
especially in the course of his daily walk to and from it. e l think 
I was fortunate in being brought up as a member of a large 
family on a remote farm. We had no money to spend, and there 
was nothing to spend money on. We had to make our own amuse 
ments, but that is easy in such surroundings. We had the farm 
animals, and the trout in the burns. We unconsciously learned a 
great deal about nature, much of which is missed by a town- 
dweller/ Boys who live in towns do their studying from books. 
The young Flemings had something better a living book. 

Though not top of his form, Alec worked well at the Darvel 
school, to reach which he had to cover four miles, morning and 
evening. These long journeys on foot made of him in later years a 
man who scarcely knew what it was to be tired. It was at this time 
that an incident occurred which altered his appearance by giving 
hiH^the flattened nose of a boxer. One day he happened to run 
rounothe corner of a wall just as another boy, named Jackson, 
who was smaller than he was, collided with him. Fleming s nose 
came into violent contact with the other s forehead. The cartilage 
was broken. He bled profusely and, when the swelling had 
subsided, the change in his looks was clearly visible. Since he 
suffered no more pain, it was not thought necessary to call a 
doctor. Alec Fleming had a boxer s nose for the rest of his 
life, but, though it considerably altered him, it did not make 
him ugly. 

When he left the Darvel school at about the age of twelve, plans 
had to be made for his future. Should he work on the farm or should 
he continue his education? His mother and his elder brothers 
decided that he should attend the Academy at Kilmarnock, an 
important Ayrshire town which boasted a museum, a monument 
to the poet, Robert Burns, and a celebrated cheese fair. A railway 

23 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

line was In course of construction from Kilmarnock to Darvel* but 
was not yet completed. This meant that each Friday evening and 
Monday morning he had to walk the six miles which lay between 
the farm and Newmiln (the last station on the line)* *That kept me 
fit*, he used to say, and did me a lot of good/ The Academy, 
which was situated in a large building on the top of a hill, was an 
excellent school where frequent examinations were held which 
kept the boys on their toes. 

c There were fifty or sixty pupils in each class. Not much chance 
of individual attention. But we worked well. The headmaster was 
considered to be a pioneer in furthering the study of science in 
schools. We studied two science subjects each year, mostly 
theoretical: inorganic chemistry, physiography, magnetism and 
electricity, heat, light and sound, and physiology. But this 
science teaching, according to one of Fleming s contemporaries, 
was primitive , and it would be interesting to know how much 
benefit Alec derived from, say, the instruction in chemistry which 
he received at Kilmarnock. The answer to that question is very 
little. 

This family of farmers attached enormous importance to the 
education of the young. Alexander Fleming was sent, at different 
ages, to the best available school in the neighbourhood. The Scots 
have a sincere respect for learning. Since many of them have to 
leave their native land and carry on a hard fight for success 
in London, they know how essential it is to arrive in England 
with well-furnished minds. 

Hugh, the eldest brother, was left to carry on the farm alone* 
Thomas (always called Tom) had settled in the English capital. It 
had been his intention to set up in general practice and with this 
in view he had taken the lease of a house at 144 Maryletxme Road, 
dose to Baker Street Station. But patients were slow in coming. 
He made the acquaintance of a retired ophthalmic surgeon who 
advised him to specialize in this branch of medicine, and offered 
to undertake his training. Tom accepted, and somewhat later, 
when his younger brother, John, joined him in London, the old 
surgeon suggested that the younger man should learn the craft of 
optician, and found work for him in a spectacle factory* The choice 
of firm was unfortunate and it was not long before it got into 
financial difficulties. The calling, however, was an excellent one, 

24 



IN THE BEGINNING WAS SCOTLAND 

John Fleming and, later on, his brother Robert, succeeded 
brilliantly at it. 

When it was Alec Fleming s turn, at the age of thirteen and a 
half, to take the road to London, Tom had just put up a new plate 
on his front door: Oculist. 5 His strong sense of family solidarity led 
him to take charge of this second brother, though his own position 
was far from being assured* It was the family that organized and 
controlled his destiny. Hugh and his stepmother were running the 
farm until such time as Hugh should marry. Mrs Fleming s 
cheeses enjoyed a great local reputation and sold well. For a time, 
at least, Lochfield was in a position to subsidize Marylebone Road, 
Six months later, Robert joined Alec, and the four Fleming 
brothers lived together in London, unostentatiously giving each 
other mutual support in a strange world. One of their sisters, Mary, 
kept house for them. 

It was a violent change to leave trout-streams, rabbit-warrens 
and birds* nests for life in a great noisy city where trees and grass 
could be found only in a few scattered parks and squares. 1895 
was the glorious high-spot of old Queen Victoria s reign. The 
Underground Railway, at that time running on steam, shook the 
house in Marylebone Road every ten minutes or so. The streets 
were alive with innumerable vehicles hansom-cabs, trams and 
omnibuses all horse-drawn. Alec and Robert Fleming explored 
the capital from the tops of buses, where they sat beside the driver 
and learned much about the language of this foreign country by 
listening to the abusive exchanges between competing drivers and 
the remarks made by them to passing pedestrians. The brothers 
visited the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, the British 
Museum and the various picture-galleries. They were happy in 
one another s company though, faithful to the traditions of their 
ancestors, they spoke little except when they wished to draw 
attention to some object worthy of interest. 

In the evenings Tom was the life of the party. He had a passion 
for competitions of every description geography, history, science. 
Each of the brothers contributed a penny to the pool and the 
winner took all. This was an excellent training for examinations. 
One night Tom brought home a pair of boxing-gloves, and 
substituted bouts for games. But Mary decided that boxing brought 
disturbance into brotherly love, and put the gloves in the dust- 

25 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

bin. It is scarcely necessary to point out that evening games 
and daily excursions had to give way to work* First Alec, then 
Robert, attended lectures at the Polytechnic School in Regent 
Street. Tom, soured by the difficulties he had experienced in his 
attempt to set up as a doctor, had turned his back on the liberal 
professions, and now pinned all his hopes on business. Conse 
quently he entered his brothers names in the Commercial 
Section where everything was taught except Greek and Latin. 

When Alec entered the school, he was at first placed in a class 
suited to his age. But so advanced did he show himself to be that 
within a fortnight he had jumped two classes, with the result that 
he found himself working with boys considerably older than 
himself. Scottish methods now showed to advantage. In the 
beginning, the Fleming brothers* accent caused a good deal of 
laughter, and this made thefti very shy. After a while, however, 
they discovered that, since the English are fundamentally a 
tolerant race and generous to those who have been unlucky enough 
to be born on the wrong side of the Border, a slight Scottish 
accent is an advantage rather than the reverse. It is like some 
physical infirmity which leads others to show an amused pity for 
the afflicted. At the same time, there are limits to what can be 
endured, and the dialect of Ayrshire overstepped all bounds. They 
did their best, therefore, to correct it, though they never ceased to 
be markedly Scottish in their talk, outlook and behaviour. 

In those last years of the nineteenth century it looked as though 
the lines along which the family was to move had been laid down 
for good and all. Tom, whose practice was now growing, had 
taken a larger house at 29 York Street, where he still found room 
for his brothers. Mary having married, it was the younger sister, 
Grace, who now looked after them all. Alec had found employ 
ment in a shipping company, the American Line, with offices in 
Leadenhall Street, and four passenger boats, which, though old, 
were fairly large. At first he earned the princely sum of aid. an 
hour . He did his job extremely well. He did not like it, but 
accepted his fate with silent stoicism. John and Robert were both 
working in a factory producing optical lenses. Hugh was stiU at 
Lochfield and preferred his life there to that of his city-bound 
brothers who, however, were still devoted to the farm and 
regularly returned to it at holiday-time for the fishing and shoot- 

26 



IN THE BEGINNING WAS SCOTLAND 

ing. But, though they showed little on the surface, they were 
inwardly seething with plans and could not have endured the 
thought of spending their lives on a remote hillside. 

In 1 900 the Boer War broke out. Less than three years after the 
apotheosis of the Diamond Jubilee, two small agricultural repub 
lics at the far southern point of the African continent were putting 
up a successful resistance against one of the most powerful coun 
tries in the world. The London crowds at first treated the unequal 
conflict as a laughing matter, singing songs about Kruger and 
promising to eat their Christmas dinner with him in Pretoria. 
But after several grave reverses, a wave of patriotism swept the 
country. Volunteers flocked to the colours. John and Alec, to be 
followed later by Robert, enlisted in the London Scottish, a 
regiment largely composed of men of Scottish descent. Young doc 
tors and lawyers served in it as simple privates, and the relations 
between officers and men were considerably more intimate than 
was usual in the British Army. 

The London Scottish was a combination of regiment and club. 
It ran a swimming club and the Flemings, who were good 
swimmers, played in the water-polo team. Alec, too, turned out 
to be a first-rate shot. His gifts of observation stood him in good 
stead on the range. He remained in the ranks and was indifferent 
to promotion. He had been drafted to C H* Company, the last one 
of all, he said, which marched at the tail-end of the regiment 
where neither drums nor bagpipes could be heard. This meant that 
the men could keep in step only by a great effort of attention and 
determination, 

The men of "H" Company , wrote Fleming, Vere self- 
opinionated, egocentric, and obeyed no rules but their own. The 
surprise of the battalion was great when *H Company carried off 
the Celestial , which was a shooting trophy competed for annually . 
This triumph was partly due to Fleming who, on more than one 
occasion, attended the National Shooting Week at Bisley. Sport 
ing interests play an important part in all Anglo-Saxon com 
munities. They made of this silent little office-clerk, with the fine 
eyes and the broken nose, one of the favourites of the regiment. 

The number of volunteers was so large that the needs of the 
Expeditionary Force were greatly exceeded, with the result that 
most of them never went to the Transvaal at all. Fleming was one 

27 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

of those who stayed at home, and was thus able to enjoy the old 
family life undisturbed. He went on one occasion with the regi 
ment to Edinburgh. Since there was a shortage of seats in the 
train, he, being the smallest in his party, was accommodated in 
the luggage-rack, where he remained for the whole of the journey. 

Tom, whose practice was still growing, had moved to a house 
in Harley Street where all the successful doctors lived. Hugh, 
at Lochfield, had got himself married, and the *dowager 
Mrs Fleming went south to Baling, where she kept house for Alec, 
John and Robert. It was a great joy for the three young men to 
have their beloved mother with them. Tom, now prosperous, had 
become reconciled to the liberal professions. He realized that 
Alec s great gifts had no scope in an employment which did not 
offer him a future. Why shouldn t he take up medicine? Most 
opportunely, just as Alec turned twenty, Uncle John died and left 
him a legacy. 

Uncle John had been an old bachelor who had spent all his 
life farming at Low Ploughland*. He left his fortune to his 
brothers and sisters, or their descendants. It must have been pretty 
considerable for the place and the period, because an eighth part 
of an eighth part, which was Alec s share, amounted to two 
hundred and fifty pounds, Tom advised him to give in his notice 
to his employers at once, and to use this legacy, with a bursary 
(should he get one), to the study of medicine. Alec, no doubt, 
would be starting a bit late, but he never regretted the years 
which he had spent in a business house. C I learned nothing 
academic , he said, but I gained much general knowledge, and 
when I went to the medical school I had a great advantage over 
my fellow students, who were straight from school and had never 
got away from their books into the school of life.* 

It is true that he had this advantage, but he owed it chiefly to 
the fourteen years which he had spent close to nature. He had 
learned, without effort, to use his eyes. The harshness of the 
climate and the habit of work had turned him into a man who 
could drive himself hard. As a boy he had, without realizing it, 
become a naturalist with the habit of noticing everything that 
went on round him. Fully conscious though he was of his own 
intellectual gifts, he had remained a cautious, taciturn and modest 
Scot. Under the surface of his reticence there lay a tenacious love 

28 



IN THE BEGINNING WAS SCOTLAND 

of independence and a simple, sensitive heart. The virtue which he 
most prized, together with a taste for work, was loyalty. He was 
determined to be faithful to his family, his regiment and his side: 
to Scotland and to the British Empire. At twenty there was still 
something of the child in him, the charm of a child, and also of the 
boy and the good scholar who wants to do well, and does better 
than his comrades, to whom his tiny triumphs are the source of a 
deep and secret happiness. 



CHAPTER TWO 

THE TWISTS IN THE PATH ^* 

*I should see the garden far better/ said Alice to herself, if I could get to the 
top of that hill; and here s a path ... but how curiously it twists , v * 

LEWIS CARROLL, Alice Through the Looking Glass 

EKE many British institutions, the study of medicine in 
England was organized in a haphazard manner without any 
central plan. Each of the twelve great London hospitals had 
maintained a school long before the creation of the University. 
When this was founded, the hospital faculties of medicine formed 
part of it, but retained, from the days of their independence, the 
right to accept students who did not hold the Secondary Schools 
Certificate which was necessary before they could enter a univer 
sity, These students could obtain a special diploma known as the 
Conjoint , which gave them permission to practise general 
medicine, but not to have access to the higher levels of the Univer 
sity hierarchy- 
Fleming, who had neither the certificate of matriculation 
demanded by the University nor any other form of diploma, had to 
pass an examination before he could be allowed to enter a school 
of medicine. He took a few lessons and then sat for the examination 
of the Senior College of Preceptors. There was good reason to fear 
that a young clerk who had had no time for study for the last five 
years would be in no fit condition to face so exacting a test. But 
Fleming had a solid basis of education (which he owed to the little 
moorland school), a prodigious memory, a tempered intelligence 
which, like a scalpel, cut straight through to the essentials of any 
subject, and a natural gift of expression. When faced by any 
definite question, he could write with elegance and clarity. He 
passed top of all the United Kingdom candidates (July 1901). 

With the certificate firmly in his grasp, he was in a position to 
make his choice among the available medical schools. *In London 5 , 
he wrote, there are twelve such schools, and I lived about equi 
distant from three of them. I had no knowledge of any of these 

30 



THE TWISTS IN THE PATH 

three, but I had played water-polo against St Mary s, and so to 
St Mary s I went. That he should have chosen a faculty of medi 
cine for purely sporting reasons may seem strange. But the fact 
that he did so reveals a pleasing and constant aspect of his 
character a need to combine the fanciful and the serious. He 
was the least pompous of men, and his mind could adapt itself to 
an infinite variety of interests. 

St Mary s was not a hospital of ancient lineage. It had been 
founded in 1854 to serve the Paddington district where, since the 
building of a large railway terminus, the population had rapidly 
increased. The foundation-stone had been laid by Prince Albert. 
Fleming entered in October 1901, and while pursuing his studies 
in medicine was also reading for the matriculation examination of 
the University, which he passed with ease in 1902. He next set 
himself to compete against rivals of many different types and 
upbringing for the senior scholarship in the natural sciences. His 
most dangerous adversary was C. A. Pannett, a brilliant student 
with a far more extensive general culture than Fleming could 
claim. Nevertheless, the latter again came out top, as he was to 
do in every competitive test for which he entered, all through his 
life. The dangerous rival became his best friend and has given a 
partial explanation of these unvarying successes. From the 
earliest days of his career, Pannett writes, c one thing was abun 
dantly clear, that he was a first-rate judge of men, and could 
foresee what they would do. He never burdened himself with 
unnecessary work, but would pick out from his text-books just 
what he needed, and neglect the rest. 

Fleming followed with great attention the lectures of those who 
were to be his examiners, took detailed notes of what they said 
and, what was even more important in his eyes, made himself 
familiar with the character of each. Having done this, he described 
exactly what questions they would set ... and was rarely wrong. 
He studied his masters, to some extent, as natural phenomena to 
be carefully observed, and treated the examination papers them 
selves as a special subject . 

This, however, was no more than one aspect, and a secondary 
one at that, of his success. He maintained that, given sound 
common sense and a solid knowledge of the basic principles, a man 
ought to find it easy to improvise the right answer to any question. 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Throughout the whole of his University career he triumphed all 
along the line by making use of these simple principles, though he 
made light of his successes. His fellow-students found his memory 
and his powers of observation astonishing. Very few knew him 
intimately. Either from temperamental shyness or deliberate 
reserve, he was slow to make friends. He did, however, belong to 
the hospital Amateur Dramatic Society, and on one occasion 
played the part of a woman Fabriquette, in Hnero s Rocket a 
sprightly French widow*, *whom he made a great deal more 
attractive than that unprincipled female deserved to be** The 
supporting feminine role was filled by C. M. Wilson who, in the 
far distant future, was to be Lord Moran, and Winston Ghurchiirs 
doctor, 

*I do not remember much*, says Pannett, *about his anatomy 
and physiology period, except that he seemed to do very little 
reading. Yet he must have worked extremely hard, since he was 
one of the outstanding pupils of his year. I, personally, took no 
part in the activities of the swimming and rifle clubs, and so 
never saw much of him as a sportsman. I wish I had, because 
there seems to be general agreement that he revealed his true 
nature at these times. He seems to have excelled in any game or 
sport he took up* I don t mean that he reached the front rank, but 
that he always became proficient in the essentials, and so wms more 
than an averagely good exponent. 

C I do know that he delighted in making difficulties for himself, 
just for the fun of overcoming them. For instance, he once under 
took to play a round of golf using only one club. In sports he 
employed the same methods which he applied to his work* He 
would set himself to grasp the essentials of a technique, concentrate 
on them, and so win with ease. Because nothing ever presented 
any difficulty to him, one might be tempted to call him a dilettante, 
but that would be quite wrong. He was far too serious, too efficient 
and too brilliant ever to be described as an amateur. He found a 
sort of elegance and modesty in concealing all effort 

e l never heard him mention history, music or philosophy, and 
I was surprised to discover later on that he read the poets of 
whom, not unnaturally, the Scotsman Robert Burns ranked among 
his favourites. He never showed that side of himself to me* He did 
not seem to take even scientific treatises seriously, but appeared 

3* 



Fleming at the door of 
the little school house of 
JLoudoun 



As a young clerk in the 
City. About 1900 



At work at 29 York Street 




Left: Private 606. A cartoon by Donald Gray, 1.910 



Below: In the hospital laboratory where the discovery of 
penicillin was made. About 1925 




Pi 



THE TWISTS IN THE PATH 

to run through them, and, with an economy of effort, get what he 
needed out of them, store it up in his memory, and with his fertile 
brain apply it to his own particular researches a mark of true 
greatness. 

During our student years, I competed with him for a number 
of prizes, but since I always came out second, I soon gave up the 
unequal struggle. 

All those who were St Mary s students in those years have a 
clear memory of the two invincible champions, Fleming and 
Pannett, who between them shared all the prizes. The distinctions 
won by Fleming covered the whole field of medical studies: 
biology, anatomy, physiology, histology, pharmacology, pathology 
and medical practice. But in the evenings at home he was always 
ready to shut his books and play games with his brothers 
draughts, bridge, table-tennis. Anyone would have thought he 
had nothing better to do. When he read a medical book/ says his 
brother Robert, he flipped through the pages very rapidly, and 
groaned out loud when he caught the author making a mistake. 
There was a great deal of groaning/ 

In those early years of the twentieth century St Mary s Hospital, 
according to Dr Carmalt Jones, one of Fleming s contemporaries, 
was a pretty gloomy place. There was nothing aesthetically 
attractive* about the public wards, and the Medical School was 
even worse: squalid in appearance, ill-lit and poorly furnished. 
The teaching was a great deal better than the environment. The 
Professor of Anatomy, Clayton Greene, was dogmatic, lucid and 
frequently amusing. He always appeared in the theatre at nine 
o clock to the minute, having changed his overcoat for a long 
white smock. He illustrated his lectures with beautiful drawings 
on the blackboard in coloured chalks. When the lecture was over, 
the students went into the dissecting-room/ 

After an initial period of instruction in surgical theory, they 
were admitted to the hospital proper. In the Casualty Department 
they learned how to open abscesses, how to probe and dress 
wounds, and even how to pull out teeth, which they did without a 
local anaesthetic. They had to manage as best they could with the 
assistance of the house surgeons who knew very little more than 
they did. Medical treatment oscillated between science and 
routine. The professors had individual manias which, for the 

33 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

students, had the rigidity of law. The first with whom Fleming 
worked always treated a pneumonia case by applying an ice-bag 
to the affected lung. But, when he went on holiday, his substitute 
was found to prefer poultices. Consequently, when the second 
lung caught the infection, the patient had a poultice on one side 
and an ice-bag on the other. He recovered. 

In 1905 Fleming spent a month attending outside maternity 
cases. The husband of the expectant mother would fetch the 
resident student from the hospital and lead him through a maze of 
side-streets to his wretched home, which often consisted of only 
one room. When that was the case, such other children as there 
might be slept during delivery under the woman s bed. Fortu 
nately*, says Carmalt Jones, *in -ninety-nine per cent of maternity 
cases, there is nothing to do but to let nature take her course. Or 
so we thought. 

During the year which he spent in the study of anatomy and 
physiology, somebody told young Alec that it would be of 
great use to him to take the Primary Fellowship in surgery. The 
registration fee was five pounds. Needless to say, Fleming passed. 
But he never became a surgeon, partly because he had a dislike of 
operations on living bodies, but mainly because circumstances 
were directing his feet into a different path. However,* he said, 
being a Scot, I never ceased to regret the five pounds which I 
had spent to no purpose. I wondered whether I ought not, 
perhaps, to have a shot at the final. I knew my pathology, but had 
no experience in practical surgery, nor the chance of getting any. 
Still, the second fee was, like the first, only five pounds, so I 
decided to try my luck/ 

Much to his surprise he passed this far more difficult test and 
was entitled, as a result, to put the august letters F.R.CLS. after 
his name. It began to look as though his career was to be at the 
mercy of a series of curious accidents. He had adopted the medi 
cal profession because his brother was a doctor; he had gone to 
St Mary s, where he was to spend the whole of his life, because 
of water-polo; he had become an F.R.C.S. because he wanted to 
justify the expenditure of five pounds; he was to choose bacteri 
ology, to which he later owed his fame, for a reason no less strange 

and trivial. 

* 

34 



THE TWISTS IN THE PATH 

The two Fleming brothers. Alec and Robert, were still members 
of *H Company of the London Scottish, and as such took part in 
the annual camps, the various route-marches and the rifle com 
petitions. Alec loved the life, because it brought him in contact 
with other Scots. Many years later in 1949, by which time he was 
a famous man, he took the chair at one of the reunion dinners of 
the few remaining old-timers of H Company which had been 
dissolved by merger some thirty-five years before. 

You have had as chairmen at these reunions , he said in his 
speech, c colonels, captains, sergeant-majors and such-like. But this 
is probably the first occasion on which a humble private has 
presided. As a member of the regiment I was always humble. I 
never disputed an order given by a sergeant or even a lance- 
corporal. As to officers, I was so insignificant a figure that I don t 
think I ever got an order direct from any of them. 

c To be humble was a great advantage. There was no need for 
you to think: you just did as you were told. The officers, on the 
other hand, had to do a lot of hard thinking, since as often as not 
they did not know what ought to be done. But they had to do 
something, or pass the buck to the Colour Sergeant. Probably the 
Colour Sergeant did not know either, but it was more difficult for 
him to pass the buck (though he did sometimes manage it), with 
the result that he had to give some sort of order, whether it 
was right or wrong. The sergeants were always quite sure of 
themselves, especially when they knew nothing about what was 
going on. 

*It is a wonderful thing in a Company to remain a private, 
and to watch others doing the climbing. They do it in such 
different ways, but all of them are interesting. When I joined "H" 
Company, it was at a low ebb. The other companies said we 
couldn t shoot, they said we couldn t drill. After five years, they 
discovered that we could drill and shoot. I remember one Whit 
Monday when "F" Company thought they had everything in 
their pocket, but the despised "H" Company suddenly woke up 
and walked off with all the best prizes. I am not at all sure 
that the Fleming family was not responsible for this. There were 
three of us shooting that day .., 



35 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Ever since 1902, one of the most brilliant members of the 
teaching staff at St Mary s had been Almroth Wright. He was 
already celebrated as a bacteriologist, and had created an 
inoculation service at the hospital. Wright, who was eloquent, 
paradoxical and something of a genius, had a number of enthu 
siastic disciples, among them a young doctor called Freeman, a 
charming and cultivated man with a fine head of curly hair. He 
was a good shot and anxious to get new blood into the St Mary s 
rifle club which, after carrying off the Inter-Hospitals Shooting 
Cup for several years running, had fallen on evil days. Anxious, 
as he was, to build up a new team, he asked: c Are there any 
territorials among the students?* 

Someone answered: Yes, that little fellow, Alec Fleming* He s 
in the London Scottish/ 

What s he like? 

Quite a decent accent, and wins all the prizes. Apart from that, 
inscrutable. 

What s his line? 

Surgery, but if he sticks to that it ll mean his leaving the 
hospital. There s only one surgical vacancy, and Zachary Cope s 
bound to get it, 

Good shoe 

First-rate. 

Hearing this, Freeman at once conceived the plan of keeping 
the first-rate shot at St Mary s T>y getting him into the Inoculation 
Service. With this in mind, he approached Fleming and tried to 
imbue him with his own admiration for Wright. After one of the 
latter s most brilliant lectures, he turned to Fleming and said: 
Wright s a marvel! 

Fleming, moved by a spirit of contradiction, replied coldly: 
What I want is facts. I ve heard nothing from him but airy 
generalizations. 

All the same, as soon as Fleming had got his diploma, Freeman 
suggested that he should work in Wright s laboratory. 

Look here, I know you re a good shot . . . why not join us in 
the lab.? 

How can I do that? 

I ll manage it/ 

Fleming, still tempted by the prospect of a surgical career, 

36 



THE TWISTS IN THE PATH 

hesitated. Nevertheless, like all the students, he was fascinated by 
Wright, and Freeman was persuasive. e l plugged the fact that 
Almroth Wright s laboratory would make a good observation-post 
from which he could keep an eye open for a chance to get into 
surgery. I told him, too, that he would find work in the lab. 
interesting, and that the company there was congenial. The lab., 
at that time, consisted of only one room where the staff lived a 
sort of communal life. 

It remained to convince the Chief, in other words, Wright. 
Freeman was perfectly frank with him, and talked about his 
beloved shooting team. Wright thoroughly enjoyed Freeman s 
whimsical way of dealing with serious matters. Freeman went on 
to say that Fleming had a scientific mind, and would make an 
excellent recruit. To cut a long story short, Wright agreed to the 
suggestion, and Fleming was taken on to the laboratory staff. He 
never left it until the day of his death. 

Such a method of deciding on a career may seem incredible, 
casual and irresponsible. But I don t think , says Freeman, c that 
Fleming ever made plans far in advance. He was content to 
assemble his facts, and then leave Fate to do the rest. It is not a 
bad method, for no one can ever be sure of foreseeing the effects of 
a decision. A water-polo side had led him to St Mary s, and 
a shooting team to choose bacteriology. Both choices were good. 

Many years after these events, when speaking to an audience of 
students, he said: c There are some people who think that medical 
students should spend all their time learning medicine and should 
give up games. I don t agree. If a student gave up all games and 
spent all his time reading text-books, he might know his books 
better than the next man. I say mighty for it is by no means certain 
that he would. He would probably have a better knowledge of 
what was written in the books, but not of the meaning of what 
he read. 

c You should know even at this stage of your career that there is 
far more in medicine than mere book-work. You have to know 
men and you have to know human nature. There is no better 
way to learn about human nature than by indulging in sports, 
more especially in team-sports, 

When you are one of a team, you have to play for the side and 
not simply for yourself, and this is marvellous training for a man 

37 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

who hopes to become a doctor. For even a doctor has to play the 
game of life, not just for his own material advantage, but for the 
welfare of his patients, irrespective of financial gain. 

Doctors are, in a sense, a team, and the selfish ones who play 
only for their own personal ends tend to ruin the team-spirit and 
lower the standard of their profession. 

Tlay games, and you will be able to read your books with a 
greater understanding of your patients, and that will make you 
better doctors ... True, each one of you will, later, have to 
specialize in some particular part of the body, but never forget 
that your patients are live human beings.* 

Then, speaking of his own youth, he added: Sport has had a 
considerable influence on my own career. Had I not taken an 
interest in swimming in my young days, I should probably not 
have gone to St Mary s Hospital: I should not have had Almroth 
Wright as a teacher, and it is more than likely that I should never 
have become a bacteriologist/ 

The twists in the path are numerous and surprising. But it is the 
winding road that gets to the top of the hill. 



CHAPTER THREE 

THE NATURE OF WRIGHT 

It is not often that one has the privilege of working alongside a Master, but 
Fate arranged that for me* FLEMING 

THE Inoculation Department had started life in 1902 in one 
small room belonging to the old Medical School at St Mary s. 
When Fleming joined it in 1906, the one room had expanded 
to two rooms, both tiny, which had to accommodate the Pro 
fessor, his assistants and such infectious cases as might be sent for 
treatment from other parts of the hospital. There was no money to 
spare and the laboratory owed its continued existence to Wright s 
generosity. At that time he had a rich practice. Millionaires and 
members of the British aristocracy would call in Wright for the least 
ailment for anything, in fact, from a boil to an attack of typhoid. 
His large waiting-room at 6 Park Crescent was always crammed 
with patients, and the greater part of his fees served to maintain 
the bacteriological laboratory (or, as he called it, the lab. ). 

Almroth Wright thought it useful and, indeed, necessary for a 
doctor engaged on research to remain in practice so as to keep 
his feet on the ground . The observation of living bodies confirms 
or rebuts the findings of the test-tube. The spectacle of human 
suffering arouses, along with pity, the desire to find a remedy 
whence his insistence that a clinic should be attached to his 
department. It wasn t at all a bad thing , says Dr Hughes, who 
later worked there. C A man engaged on research who finds nothing 
has an uneasy conscience. The doctors who worked under Wright, 
when not busy in the laboratory, carried on with their normal 
professional duties. 

Wright encouraged his assistants to stay in private practice. 
Actually it was the only way in which they could make a living, 
for he paid them little: a hundred pounds a year. He maintained 
that research should be entirely disinterested. *We don t pay 
people to do research: they ve got to have work outside. 

Salaries and promotion were decided by Wright, the sole master 
after God. This Service , he said, c is a republic. In point of fact, 

39 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

it was an enlightened despotism. The dominant personality of the 
Chief won not only respect but devotion, The Old Man, as he 
was called by his collaborators, ruled the family like a stern but 
fond father. This is how Freeman describes him: Wright was, at 
first glance, an almost clumsy figure with large head, hands and 
feet. As his great friend, Willie Bulloch, the bacteriologist at the 
London Hospital, used to say of him, he had escaped being 
acromegalic only by the narrowest of squeaks. His movements were 
slow and purposeful. He was a big man with the rounded shoulders 
of a bench-worker and anti-athlete . - . He wore spectacles above 
which showed strongly marked eyebrows which flickered up and 
down very rapidly when he was amused or being mischievous. 
He could almost speak with his eyebrows.* But, though his move 
ments were heavy, he could accomplish the most delicate tasks 
with his great fingers. 

His character was a mass of complexities. All things considered, 
he was a difficult man. His disciples adored him for his genius, for 
the way in which he made life amazingly interesting, and because 
his zest, his love of paradox and his vast culture enabled him to be 
an enchanting conversationalist. But to different people he showed 
different facets of his personality. With some he turned into a poet, 
with others into a naughty child. *You*re so mischievous, Wright,* 
said his famous friend, Balfour; *that is why we all like you so 
much!* Gentle and patient with the sick, he could behave to his 
colleagues with brutal savagery. In a controversy with a cele 
brated surgeon, he behaved so ferociously that Bernard Shaw, 
who knew what he was talking about, said: *It was Leasing who, 
according to Heine, not only cut off his adversary s head, but 
held it up to show that there were no brains in it. Sir Almroth, 
knowing that this is an anatomical impassibility, puts Sir William 
Watson Cheyne s brains on Ms operating table and shows that 
Sir William has never learned how to use them/ 

All his life had been a battle. He was born in 1861 of an Irish 
Presbyterian father and a Swedish mother, the daughter of Nik 
Alraroth, a professor of organic chemistry in Stockholm. From his 
earliest youth he had shown a spirit of fierce independence. 
Almroth was one of my failures,* said his mother. *I could never 
make him do what I wanted; he always went his own way.* 1 

1 Leonard Coicbrook, AbnrM Wright, p. 5. 



THE NATURE OF WRIGHT 

Nevertheless, she was very proud of him, and her other children 
asserted that, if Almroth had committed a crime, she would have 
said: What a fine, manly thing to do! Since the Reverend 
Charles Wright exercised his ministry in Dresden, Boulogne and 
Belfast, Almroth was brought up by private tutors, and acquired 
an excellent education. So strong was his passion for languages that 
at sixty-two he learned Russian, and began at eighty to study 
the Eskimo tongue. 

What he loved best in the world was poetry. He knew by heart 
great chunks of the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Goethe, 
Browning, Wordsworth and Kipling. He once reckoned that he 
could recite two hundred and fifty thousand lines. One might have 
supposed that, with such tastes, he would have embarked on a 
literary career, He did, actually, think of doing so, and went for 
advice to the famous Edward Dowden who occupied the Chair 
of English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin. When his 
opinion was asked, Dowden said: c lf I were you, I should stick to 
medicine. It is the finest possible introduction to life and, if you 
later show gifts as a writer, your experience will furnish you with 
a precious fund of knowledge. This verdict was fully justified, 
because Wright was to become not only a great doctor but also 
an excellent writer. Bernard Shaw once said to him: You handle 
a pen as well as I do, which, coming from Shaw, was a very great 
compliment; in fact, the only compliment worth anything! 

Wright s restless and adventurous mind could not remain 
permanently satisfied with the ordered existence of a general 
practitioner. He travelled in Germany and France, visiting a 
succession of laboratories and striking up friendships with German 
and French research-workers. For a time he read Law and 
dreamed of being a barrister. He went to Australia and taught in 
Sydney. But his ultimate choice was scientific research. He had a 
passionate desire to see what lies on the other side of the moun 
tains , to explore new worlds. He had the good fortune to enter 
the medical profession at the very time when it was undergoing a 
profound transformation. The two or three previous decades had 
seen the beginnings of a movement away from medicine-as-an-art 
and medicine-as-magic to medicine-as-science. 

* 
41 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Already, before 1860, certain men of science had been thinking 
that infectious diseases might be caused by microscopic creatures, 
though they had not supported this hypothesis with any experi 
mental proof. But between 1863 and 1873 a French doctor, 
Davaine, had demonstrated that one particular ailment, anthrax, 
was closely connected with the presence in the blood of certain 
small objects which he called bact&idts* A German, Pollender, had 
reached the same conclusion. Between 1876 and 1880, Pasteur in 
France and Koch in Germany had thrown open to medical re 
search immense and unexplored territories. Pasteur in the course 
of a long and prodigiously fertile career proved that numerous 
infections, till then unexplained, were due to the action of micro 
organisms which the microscope made it possible to detect in the 
blood and tissues of the sick* Round about 1 877, the word * microbe* 
was invented by S6diliot. Little by little, research-workers had 
succeeded in establishing a catalogue of the principal microbes: 
staphylococcus, streptococcus, the typhoid bacillus, the tubercle 
bacillus, etc. ... The German school had taken the lead in devising 
bacteriological techniques: culture-medium, staining of microbes, 
methods of examination. 

Thanks to the work of the great English surgeon lister, Pasteur s 
discoveries had completely revolutionized the practice of surgery. 
It is difficult for us today to imagine what surgery was like when 
Lister was a young man. The cases in which it could be employed 
were strictly limited- A very high proportion of those operated 
upon died of general infection, as did, also, a large number of 
women in childbed. This was known as the hospital sickness*, and 
it seemed impossible to find a way of dealing with it successfully. 
A Viennese doctor, Semmelweiss, had pleaded for the adoption 
of hygienic methods, but in vain- From the moment that Pasteur 
showed that no infection could take place without the presence of 
germs, and that those germs were carried by the air, by the 
instruments, and by the hands and the clothing of the surgeon, 
Lister realized that by ensuring the sterility of the wound that 
is to say, the absence of all septic germs the hospital sickness* 
could be done away with, that, in fact, it was no sickness at all, but 
simply the result of a lack of precaution. 

The causes of infection had thus been partially explored. It 
remained to discover a way of fighting them. Certain facts, known 

42 



THE NATURE OF WRIGHT 

since the days of antiquity, might have been of assistance in 
providing the research-workers with some sort of guidance. When 
the plague was raging in Athens, says Thucydides, the sick and 
dying would have received no attention at all had it not been for 
the devotion of those who had already had the plague and had recovered 
from it, since no one ever caught it a second tinted It was known, too, 
that smallpox, one of the worst scourges of the human race up to 
the beginning of the nineteenth century, which killed or disfigured 
millions of sufferers, never attacked the same person twice. For 
more than a thousand years in China, Siam and Persia, various 
forms of deliberate and protective infection the pricking of 
certain areas of the skin with contaminated needles, or introducing 
portions of smallpox scab into the nose had been practised. In 
Baluchistan it was the custom to have cows afflicted with cowpox, 
which was thought to be a benign variety of smallpox, milked by 
children with scratches on their hands, the idea being that those 
children would, thereafter, be immune from infection. 

European peasants, too, had had an empirical knowledge of 
these facts. The attention of the English doctor, Jenner (late 
eighteenth century), was directed to this phenomenon by a girl 
keeping cows, to whom, because of certain symptoms, he had said 
that she might be sickening for smallpox. She replied that she 
couldn t have the smallpox because she had already had the cow- 
pox. This gave Jenner the idea remarkable at that period of 
determining by methodical experimentation the value of such 
popular beliefs. He took the very venturesome step of infecting 
perfectly healthy subjects with the smallpox, after first inoculating 
(in other words, vaccinating) them with the cowpox, and reached 
the conclusion that in this way they could be given almost com 
plete immunity. 

It certainly was an extraordinary phenomenon. On the practical 
level it led to the elimination (not without displays of violent and 
absurd resistance) of a universal scourge the smallpox: while, 
on the intellectual, it revealed the fact that men or animals, after 
the injection of a minute quantity of a dangerous virus, became 
different creatures, better armed against that same virus, some 
thing like a country which, frequently attacked, has learned to keep 
a suitable defence army ready. There is , says Dr Dubos, 1 such 

1 An eminent research-worker at the Rockefeller Institute. 

43 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

a thing as biochemical memory, which is no less real than intel 
lectual or emotional memory, and, perhaps, essentially no different 
from them.* Just as a shock experienced in infancy is enough 
to warp the psyche and to sow the seeds of lasting complexes, so 
will the simulacrum of a disease produce deep-seated, and some 
times beneficial, changes in the blood. The organism which has 
fought against an evil is no longer a novice: * ,.. Thou hast 
wrestled with me and art no longer the same man,* 

Pasteur had given much thought to the great mystery of in 
fectious diseases, and to Jenner s immunity theory. His powerful 
mind refused to admit that the case of smallpox was unique. Im 
munization ought to be possible in other illnesses. But how could 
the equivalent of vaccine be found which might be used to combat 
other microbes? Chance, which so often comes to the help of those 
who help themselves, provided him with a key to this problem in 
1880* While studying chicken-cholera he was led to two conclu 
sions: (a) that increasing age diminishes the virulence of the patho 
genic germ; () that hens treated with attenuated germs are 
rendered immune to virulent ones. 

In more general terms, he discovered that a germ becomes 
suitable for purposes of Vaccination* when it has been kept for a 
long time in contact with the air. (As an act of homage to Jenner, 
Pasteur had extended the meaning of the word Vaccine*.) How 
did all these vaccines work? By provoking a defence-reaction or, 
more precisely, by forming in the blood new substances, or anti 
bodies*, capable of helping the organism to fight, when the time 
came, against the now-attenuated germs. The threat produced a 
mobilization of the defending forces. In 1888, Chantemesse and 
Widal proved that even a vaccine composed of dead germs could 
develop in the blood the strength necessary to overcome the 
microbe of typhoid fever. About the same time, Roux and Yersin 
found the poison, or toxin, secreted by the microbe of diphtheria. 
Then one of Koch*s pupils, Behring, revealed the anti-toxic power 
of the serum of animals (guinea-pigs and dogs) which had been 
treated with repeated small doses of the toxins of diphtheria and 
tetanus. 

A natural extension of the idea led to this armed and mettle 
some blood, this battling serum, being called to the aid of blood 
lying under the threat of any contamination. Behring, pursuing 

44 



THE NATURE OF WRIGHT 

this line of thought, had tried the use of anti-sera for the prevention 
and treatment of some infections. The principle involved was 
different from that of vaccination. The serum had to bring to the 
sick or threatened organism already formed antibodies. Behring was 
only partially successful, but Roux tackled the problem again and, 
this time, with successful results. At the Budapest Congress of 
1894, Ro ux was able to announce to a gathering of enthusiastic 
doctors that the serum of an immunized horse, injected into those 
suffering from diphtheria, could bring about a complete cure. The 
era of serotherapy had dawned. It was no longer merely a 
question of preventing the onset of the disease, but of curing those 
who already had it. 

When Wright returned to England from Sydney in 1891, and 
started to look for a suitable opening, he was delighted, after a year 
spent in doing odd jobs, to be offered the position of Chief Pathol 
ogist in the Army School of Medicine at Netley Hospital. There he 
found a group of young men whom he inspired with his own passion 
for research and with his desire to see a new system of medicine 
developed which should be founded on scientific experimentation. 

His pupils admired his devotion to science and his aggressive 
ness. Never had there been a man less suited to get on with soldier- 
administrators. Very soon Netley was buzzing delightedly with 
stories: how one day, having hunted high and low for his labora 
tory sergeant, he had found him taking part in a parade and had, 
there and then, hauled him off by the collar of his tunic to get busy 
with what he described to the horrified military as a c piece of work 
worth doing : how he had been told by the brass-hats at the War 
Office, not to talk so much about blood in his lectures, since after 
all it accounted for only one-thirteenth part of a man s weight , 
and how, in spite of orders to the contrary, he gave each year, to 
those passing out from Netley, a revolutionary address on Physi 
ology and Belief*. 

At the time when he was beginning to teach bacteriology a 
science then in its infancy Wright already foresaw a future in 
which the diagnosis of infectious diseases would be carried out by 
precise methods and not merely by listening to the patient s chest 
and saying, as a certain distinguished doctor was in the habit of 
doing, *I think I can detect the influenza bacillus ... by the 
sound. Widal and Gruber had demonstrated that the blood of a 

45 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

man suffering from typhoid agglutinates the typhoid microbes 
and that this process, being specific (that is to say, occurring with 
the microbial family which is the cause of the disease and with no 
other), makes diagnosis possible. Wright proved that the same held 
good of Malta fever, a serious ailment which goats (numerous on 
the island of Malta) can transmit to humans, a fact which led 
MetchnikofF, who at that time was teaching at the Pasteur 
Institute, to tell his pupils, not without humour, showing them a 
map of the world on which the regions subject to Malta fever 
were marked: You will notice that these are all situated within 
the British Empire. This is not due to any evil influence of the 
British, but it merely means that they are the only people who 
have made a study of Malta fever, and know how to diagnose it.* 

From 1895 Wright devoted most of his time to working out how 
immunity to typhoid could be achieved. In those days it was a 
dreaded and frequently a fatal disease which was particularly 
prevalent among soldiers in time of war. A Russian bacteriologist, 
Haffkine, who was working at the Pasteur Institute and paid a 
visit to Netley, suggested to him that it might be possible to protect 
human beings against typhoid by preventive vaccination, as 
Pasteur had succeeded in protecting sheep against anthrax* It was 
a question in both cases of stimulating the formation of antibodies 
in the blood. Typhoid was not, as had long been thought, a disease 
which affected the intestine only. The microbe, in fact,* spread 
through the whole circulatory system and, by making the patient s 
blood deadly to the microbe, this invasion would be held in check. 

Chantemesse and Widal had shown that animals could be 
vaccinated against typhoid by means of germs killed by heat. 
Wright developed a simple technique by which the power of the 
blood to kill bacteria could be measured. This enabled him to 
establish as a fact that the blood, after inoculation, can kill from 
ten to fifty times more bacteria than before and conserves this 
formidable power for several months. He observed that after 
inoculation there is frequently a negative phase during which the 
blood loses this power, accompanied by discomfort and fever, after 
which a positive period ensues. In short, he brought to a successful 
conclusion a piece of precise research and, sure of his results, was 
in a position to advise the War Office to have all men going over 
seas vaccinated. This was in 1898, He was the first doctor to use 

46 



THE NATURE OF WRIGHT 

anti-typhoid vaccines on human beings, though Pfeiffer and Kolle in 
Germany could boast of a similar success at about the same time. 

In spite of favourable results in India and elsewhere, the old 
medical dug-outs of the R.A.M.C. remained sceptical. When the 
Transvaal war started, Wright, who wanted to have immuniza 
tion made compulsory in the Army, was allowed to have the 
operation performed only on those who might volunteer to under 
go it. No more than sixteen thousand out of three hundred and 
twenty thousand came forward. This was a disappointingly small 
number. Furthermore, it was not easy to follow up the case his 
tories of those who had been inoculated. In the field-hospitals, 
when typhoid cases were asked whether they had been vaccinated, 
they were inclined to answer yes* from fear of being crimed if 
they didn t. A story is told of one sergeant-orderly who in his 
returns invariably showed as having been vaccinated all men 
suffering from the disease. The fact that they ve got it, he said, 
proves as they ve been vaccinated/ Wright was so much enraged 
by the incompetence of official medical practice that he resigned 
his post at Netley, greatly though he had liked it. In 1902 he was 
appointed Professor of Pathology at St Mary s. 

There he created the Inoculation Department over which he 
was to reign supreme for forty-five years. At first, his teaching 
covered pathological anatomy and histology as well as bacteri 
ology. But by degrees he managed to shuffle off these duties and 
concentrate his attention on immunology. He was now convinced 
that all infectious diseases could be cured by the action of anti 
bodies, whether those antibodies existed naturally in the blood, 
whether their production could be stimulated by a vaccine, or, 
finally, whether they were introduced by a foreign serum. In that 
direction, he maintained, lay the future of scientific medicine. 
The doctor of the future, he said, will be an immunizer. The 
knowledge that traditional medicine had been able to do so little 
for the cure of patients afflicted with the most serious diseases 
plunged him into despair. One evening, when he was speaking to 
an audience of doctors, he wound up his remarks by saying: What 
it comes to is this, that unless our doctors learn to do something 
useful, they will find themselves relegated to the position of 
medical orderlies. Two doctors rose and left the room. 

Meanwhile other scientists had been hard at work trying to find 

47 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

an answer to the question; *tfw does tht organism, in natural condi 
tions, protect itself against pathogenic germs? 9 Human beings, after all, 
had existed long before the advent of preventive vaccines, yet 
many of them must have found a way of resisting the attacks made 
on them by germs, as is proved by the fact that the human race has 
survived. How? A scientist of Russian birth, Metchnikoff, working 
at the Pasteur Institute, had discovered the essential mechanism 
of this defensive process in the phagocyte* While observing, in the 
course of his laboratory work, the transparent larvae of star-fish, 
he had hit on the idea that certain specialized cells, the police 
force of the organism, provided a defence for living bodies against 
harmful intruders. He introduced a number of thorns from a rose 
tree among the larvae. These thorns were soon surrounded and 
dissolved. This experiment struck Metchnikoff because its outcome 
so closely resembled what happens when a human finger is in 
fected by a splinter. Pus forms* But what exactly is pus? It is a 
collection of cells, especially of the white corpuscles of the blood 
which, in the event of inflammation, work their way through the 
blood-vessels, surround the microbial gerrns and *phagocyte* them, 
in other words, *eat* and destroy them. 

But how do the phagocytes digest the microbes? Thanks to the 
action, said Metchnikoff, of certain digestive enzymic ferments 
which, inside the cells, play a part similar to that of the digestive 
ferments of the saliva or the stomach. Against this cellular theory 
of immunity the Germans argued in favour of a humoral* theory. 
They believed in the action of the humours (that is to say, of the 
fluid substances of the body, and, especially, of blood serums). 

Wright, who was a friend of Metchnikoff and also of several 
German scientists, tried to reconcile the two theories. What he had 
to say about the matter was roughly as follows. In vaccinated or 
infected subjects, certain specific chemical principles (antibodies) 
make their appearance in the blood serum and the humours. The 
effect of these principles is to reinforce the destructive action of the 
phagocytes by modifying the superficial structure of the germs, on 
the surface of which they leave a deposit one might describe it 
as buttering* them and so facilitate digestion. 

With the help of one of his Netley disciples, Captain Douglas, 
who had joined him at St Mary s, he undertook a series of remar 
kable experiments which made it possible to count with perfect 

48 



THE NATURE OF WRIGHT 

clarity the number of microbes swallowed by each phagocyte. 
Under the microscope the phagocyte showed as a grey patch, and 
the microbes it had swallowed as black points inside it. Wright 
and Douglas noticed that the number of microbes which the 
defence-cells could absorb depended upon the preparation of the 
microbes by the substance secreted thanks to immunization. One 
of Wright s favourite amusements was the invention of words 
drawn from the Greek. He therefore called this property acquired 
by the blood, which enabled it to butter 5 the microbes in readiness 
for the phagocytes meal, the opsonic 3 power, from the Greek 
opsono* - C I prepare food for ,.. , and the substance itself *opsonin\ 
In a serum free from opsonin there is little or no phagocytosis, 
whereas, when opsonin is present in* increased strength as a result 
of infection or vaccine, phagocytosis is considerable. 

Wright attached capital importance to his idea. In the first 
place, it produced a happy marriage between the cellular and 
humoral theories. True, it is the phagocytes that destroy the 
bacteria, but only when the latter have been buttered or made 
appetizing by the humoral opsonin. Further, Wright believed that 
this theory of his made possible the diagnosis of most cases of 
infection, since infections increase the opsonic power in the blood 
over the microbe causing the infection, and over that only. (As a 
matter of fact, the modifications, though real, are so complex that 
it is difficult to interpret them.) Finally, the measure provided by 
the opsonic index* 1 in any given subject should, he thought, open 
the way to rational treatment by vaccines or serums, since by 
establishing the percentage of phagocyted microbes the laboratory 
worker is in a position to determine the quantity of opsonin in the 
blood and to say whether it increased, or not, under treatment. 

When demonstrated with Wright s brilliant eloquence, the 
theory of the opsonic index seemed to be a stroke of genius. 
Medicine was at last becoming an exact science! That was the 
feeling of a few young and highly intelligent doctors and research- 
workers who, attracted by the great gifts of the master, were pre 
pared to accept the by no means easy life he offered them. The 
first team was composed of Stuart Douglas from Netley, Leonard 

1 The relationship existing between the opsonic power of the blood in the subject 
under examination and that of a subject in a normal state of health, taken as the 
unit of measurement. 

49 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Noon, Bernard Spilsbury and John Freeman* The latter was a 
man of original intelligence and an excellent scientific writer. 
He entered the lab. in 2903, became one of Wright s favourite 
disciples, and was called, by him, his *son in science** Freeman, 
until he married, Eved with Wright at 7 Lower Seymour Street. 
At a later date, Fleming (in 1906), Matthews, Garmalt Jones and 
Leonard Colebrook joined the team. 

A team? It would be more accurate to describe it as a brother 
hood, something in the nature of a religious order* It was accepted 
as an indisputable fact by these men that they had a mission, that 
they were to devote their lives to the service of science, and 
that they owed unconditional loyalty to Wright. What was it that 
gave him this prestige in their eyes? His charm, his intellectual 
brilliance, his personal passion for research, which kept him 
working in the laboratory until three or four in the morning, and 
sometimes until daybreak. What was it that made him spurn all 
pleasures and even a family life in order to count black points 
in grey patches? Ambition? Perhaps, in part* He loved authority 
and longed for fame. But, more than anything eke, intellectual 
curiosity and a profound desire to help human suffering, for he 
was by nature both sensitive and kindly* 

According to Freeman, Wright was led by his passion for work 
so wholly to neglect his own flesh and blood that his daughter 
Dolly, having to write a school essay on the pleasures of home-life, 
concluded it with this sentence: *It is awfully jolly if Daddy can 
manage to get down on Sunday to see how his family is getting 
on ...* One day, when Wright, on arrival at the hospital, was 
hanging up his hat, Douglas saw a piece of white paper fall out of 
the ribbon. He picked it up, and read: *0addy, three times you 
have forgotten to put more gas in my balloon, as you promised you 
would* I have put two empty balloons in the inside pocket of 
your overcoat. Don t forget this time. Douglas filled the balloons 
and tied them to the hat-ribbon* Dolly Wright got what she 
wanted, at lastl 

It was not only affection and loyalty, however, that accounted 
for the admiration felt by these young scientists for their master. 
His genius justified their enthusiasm. Nor were they alone in their 
feelings, which were shared by many eminent men who had no 
connection with the hospital. Often, round about midnight, tea 

5 



THE NATURE OF WRIGHT 

was made in a small room next to the lab., and there many 
illustrious visitors were entertained: biologists like Ehrlich and 
Metchnikoff; statesmen like Arthur Balfour and John Burns; 
dramatists like Bernard Shaw and Granville Barker. People came 
together from every corner of London and, indeed, of the world, 
to listen to Wright. 

In the house of his great friend, Lady Homer, a celebrated 
hostess, Wright met most of the members of the Cabinet; among 
them was Lord Haldane, at that time Secretary of State for War, 
who was responsible for getting him knighted. Freeman, who 
read the letter in which the news of this honour was communi 
cated to the Chief, says that it ran more or less as follows: 
Dear Wright, we must have your Typhoid Prophylactic for the 
Army, but I have failed to convince the head man in the Army 
Medical Service of this. I have therefore got to build you up as a 
Public Figure, and the first step is to make you a knight. You 
won t like it, but it has to be ... Haldane.* Wright, at first, 
wanted to refuse and said in a disgusted tone: They ll even 
shove it on my gravestone! but in his heart of hearts he was very 
pleased. 

One evening, when Bernard Shaw was drinking tea in the lab., 
the question arose of whether a new patient should be admitted. 
Freeman said: * We ve got too many cases on our hands already,* 
and Shaw asked: *What would happen if more people applied to 
you for help than you could properly look after? Wright replied: 
*We should have to consider which life was best worth saving/ 
Shaw laid a finger to his nose, and said: c Ha! I smell drama! ... I 
get a whiff of a play !* 

Not long afterwards, a certain Dr Wheeler, who was a great 
friend of both Shaw and Wright, warned the latter that Shaw was 
making him the hero of a play. That was true: it was called The 
Doctor s Dilemma, and it was impossible not to recognize Sir 
Almroth Wright in its leading character, Sir Colenso Ridgeon. 
In the first act there is a passage between Colenso Ridgeon 
(Wright) and an infinitely sceptical doctor of the old school: 

SIR PATRICK What did you find out from Jane s case? 
RIDGEON I found out that the inoculation that ought to cure 
sometimes kills. 

5* 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

SIR PATRICK I could have told you that. IVe tried these 
modern inoculations a bit myself* I ve killed people 
with them; and I ve cured people with them; but I gave 
them up because I never could tell which I was going 
to do. 

RIDGEON (taking a pamphlet from a drawer in the writing-table and 
handing it to him) Read that the next time you have an 
hour to spare; and you ll find out why. 

SIR PATRICK (grumbling and fumbling for Ms spectacles} Oh, 
bother your pamphlets. What s the practice of it? 
(Looking at the pamphlet) Opsonin? What the devil is 
opsonin? 

RIDGBON Opsonin is what you butter the disease germs with 
to make your white blood corpuscles eat them* 
(He sits down again on the couch*) 

SIR PATRICK That s not new. I ve heard this notion that the 
white corpuscles what is it that what s his name 
Metchnikoff calls them? 

RIDGEON Phagocytes. 

SIR PATRICK Aye, phagocytes: yes, yes, yes. Well, I heard this 
theory that the phagocytes eat up the dtisease germs 
years ago: long before you came into fashion. Besides, 
they don t always eat them. 

RIDGEON They do when you butter them with opsonin. 

SIR PATRICK Gammon* 

RIDGEON No: it s not gammon. What it comes to in practice is 
this. The phagocytes won t eat the microbes unless the 
microbes are nicely buttered for them. Well, the patient 
manufactures the butter for himself all right; but my 
discovery is that the manufacture of that butter, which 
I caU opsonin, goes on in the system by ups and downs 
Nature being always rhythmical, you know and 
that wiiat the inoculation does is to stimulate the tips 
or downs, as the case may be ..* Inoculate when the 
patient is in the negative phase and you kill; inocu~ 
late when the patient is in the positive phase and 
you cure. 

SIR PATRICK. And pray how are you to know whether the 
patient is in the positive or the negative phase? 

5* 



THE NATURE OF WRIGHT 

RIDGEON Send a drop of the patient s blood to the laboratory 
at St Anne s; and in fifteen minutes I ll give you his 
opsonin index in figures ... 

Fifteen minutes was Bernard Shaw s own rather optimistic 
reckoning. In point of fact, when patients were numerous, the 
opsonic index kept these young monks of science awake until 
dawn. 



53 



CHAPTER FOUR 

FLEMING AND WRIGHT 

It is not the marble halls which make for intellectual grandeur - it is the 
spirit and brain of the worker, FLEMING 

THE introduction of Fleming, a circumspect young Scot, to 
this talkative and brilliant group conjures up before the 
mind s eye a curious picture. Far from being inferior to the 
other members of it, he arrived laden with diplomas and medals, 
a student already covered with glory, and possessing incon 
testable references. But his gift of silence appeared to be inex 
haustible. He could*, says Freeman, *be more eloquently silent 
than any man I have ever known. He seldom or never gave himself 
away. In the stress of the moment I sometimes called him a 
blithering idiot, or used some equally opprobrious epithet. In 
reply, Fleming would merely look at me with his barely noticeable 
Gioconda-like smile, and I think he had the best of the exchange/ 
The lab. equipment was rudimentary: an incubator, a 
sterilizer, some Petri dishes, a number of test-tubes and a micro 
scope, Fleming was trained in doing most things with a few rubber 
teats and capillary tubes, and making most of the gear he 
needed. At tea-time, whether at night or during the day, he joined 
the family* in the small room which was known as the library, a 
courtesy title, for it contained no books. Wright, massive and shaggy 
in his armchair, played the part of a Victorian father from behind 
his table, while the others crowded together on a settee, or sat on 
the floor round him* His disciples appeared to look upon Mm as 
some immense natural phenomenon. When Dr Robert Debr, 
a Frenchman, visited St Mary s, he was astonished to see Fleming, 
solemn-faced and dexterous, go up to Wright while the latter was 
holding forth and, without a word, prick the august finger so as to 
get a drop of blood which he needed for control purposes, while 
Wright went on talking without paying the least attention to 
this rite. 

54 



FLEMING AND WRIGHT 

More often than not these meetings took the form of a long 
monologue by Wright who sat leaning forward in his chair, 
slightly terrifying but quite fascinating in his role of feudal lord 
and unquestioned ruler. No matter what the subject, he was per 
fectly capable of quoting fluently and at length from Kant, 
Sophocles, Dante, Rabelais, Goethe and even Mademoiselle de 
Maupin. When important visitors, like Balfour, happened to turn 
up, it was Wright who answered their questions, or sometimes 
Freeman. Fleming, as a rule, said nothing. At first he had been 
amazed at Wright s tremendous vitality and universal knowledge. 
But he had the precious, if somewhat embarrassing, gift of seeing 
the weak point in any argument, and driving straight forward. He 
very soon realized that the Chiefs glittering oratorical per 
formances were not always constructed on irrefutable premisses. 
When the midnight tea became an orgy of metaphysical discus 
sion, he would listen for a long time in silence, and then, with a 
single word, cause the whole laboriously constructed system to 
collapse noiselessly. *Why? he would say, with assumed innocence, 
at which there would be a general exchange of glances. For he was 
perfectly right: why? 

Wright valued Fleming for the perfection of his work and his 
sure judgment. But his silences were in the nature of a challenge, 
and he enjoyed pulling his leg. Assuming that the young Scot, who 
never spoke about religion, must be a Covenanter and a Believer, 
the Old Man would try to provoke some show of emotion on that 
impassive countenance by indulging in blasphemous outbursts, 
such, for instance, as putting together two verses from the Gospels 
in such a way as to produce an absurd or scandalous sentence. Or 
he would say: Fleming, how could the star of Bethlehem be over 
one house? The apparent distance of the stars is such that the same 
star appears to be over all the houses in a village. Isn t that so? But 
Fleming never rose to the bait. He knew what his behaviour was 
supposed to be in the lab.: that of a taciturn Scot, and he con 
scientiously played up to it. 

Wright had a taste for quoting at length from the poets. Often, 
after a long piece of declamation, he would turn to Fleming, who 
had his beautiful blue eyes fixed on him, and say: What s that? In 
the early days, Fleming, as a good Scot, had replied Burns 
on principle. Then, having a methodical mind, he established the 

55 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

fact that the Old Man chiefly quoted from three great works, the 
Bible, Milton s Paradise Lost and the plays of Shakespeare* From 
that moment, whenever Wright jumped on him with the question 
What s that? 3 , he regularly answered, Parodist Lost? and one 
time in three the attribution was correct. 

After long days of work, Fleming enjoyed this atmosphere of gay 
badinage. He did not like people to take serious matters too 
seriously. He loved having a bit of a game, even where work was 
concerned. Himself given to teasing, he did not in the least mind 
being teased in return- But m games, as in everything else, he 
liked to be top-dog. Calmly, imperturbably, he would study the 
rules until he had completely mastered them. The really splendid 
game in the lab. was not conversation but research, and there 
Fleming triumphed. Though Wright was skilful in technical per 
formance, in spite of his podgy fingers, Fleming, or, as he was 
affectionately called, Little Flem% was even more deft and in 
genious. In his hands glass was made to serve the need of the 
moment* It was pure joy to watch him construct, with incredible 
rapidity and improvising as he went along, some complicated 
piece of apparatus. In the truest meaning of the word he was an 
artist, and his colleagues instinctively spoke of his work in terms 
of art. *That experiment of Flem s/ someone would say, *was a 
perfect little work of art.* In this way, and without ajny effort, he 
retained that contact with nature which is so precious a possession 
for those who question her, and which the abstract thinker is too 
apt to lose, 

Wright, a scholastic, believed that pure reason or, at least, his 
own, could discover the laws which govern phenomena. * Actually, 
he had a far greater intellectual affinity with St Thomas Aquinas 
than with Bacon*, with Descartes than with Claude Bernard. He 
believed, of course, in the experimental method: he had carried 
out innumerable and beautiful* experiments, and had owed to 
them everything he knew, but when Nature gave him a negative 
answer, it was only after a tough struggle that he could bring him 
self to accept it* *The positive spirit*, says Alain, *is a prey to the 
passions ... The reply given by things to our demands and our 
hopes is not always sufficiently definite to clear our minds of 
fantasies/ Though Wright, wisely and with perfect sincerity, 
preached sel&criticism, he was not impartial where the choice and 

56 



FLEMING AND WRIGHT 

interpretation of his results were concerned. Words held an irre 
sistible attraction for him. There were days when his dialectic, 
thickly sown with terms taken from the Greek, and of his own 
invention ( cataphylaxis , epiphylaxis , ecphylaxis ), led his 
audience beyond the borders of the real. 

Fleming admired his master s genius, was full of praise for his 
integrity, and knew that, if Wright sometimes made a mistake, it 
was in perfect good faith. But ever since the days of his youth he 
had made it a strict rule that he would never cling obstinately to a 
preconceived idea if experience proved it to be wrong. His friend, 
Professor Pannett, writes: *He never liked talking, but when he 
did make up his mind to express a judgment in words, you could 
be perfectly certain that it would be in the highest degree intelli 
gent. Fleming s edged mind and clarity of thought are beyond 
dispute/ When Wright, carried away by his own eloquence, 
pressed a theoretical conclusion too far, Fleming was always 
courageous enough to say, quite calmly: That won t work, sir. 
Wright would repeat his argument even more forcibly. Fleming 
would listen without interrupting him and then, quite simply, say 
again: That won t work, sir. And it didn t. 

Though often, with one sharp monosyllable, he would deflate a 
too audacious pilot-balloon, he felt, nevertheless, that Wright s 
passionate enthusiasm was a useful source of inspiration. The 
young Scot might seem cold and collected, but the indomitable, 
delightful and sometimes savage Irishman had awakened in him 
a spirit of unlimited loyalty. To contradict Wright to his face was 
one thing, and Fleming occasionally ventured to do it, but to 
argue against the Old Man s ideas outside the lab. was quite 
another, and that he never did. He knew perfectly well that some 
of Wright s theories were controversial, but he tried his best to 
find a solid experimental basis for the Chief s more hazardous 
hypotheses. Wright, because of his unbounded self-confidence and 
excessive outspokenness, had made a number of enemies in the 
world of science. Some there were who attacked his technical 
methods: Fleming, on the other hand, attempted with infinite 
patience, to perfect them. If Wright believed in a theory which 
others held to be debatable, he would return to it again and again, 
and prove to those of little faith that the Old Man had been 
justified. 

57 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

He learned much from Wright and it was a stroke of luck for 
him to have been trained by such a master, but it was also a stroke 
of luck for Wright to have at his elbow so fiercely impartial and 
absolutely loyal a worker. This he knew. Though he had a ten 
dency, like many great masters, to think of the mental processes of 
his disciples as his own personal possession, and to include the 
results of their work in his papers , he often quoted Fleming by 
name, and realized, many times over, how much he owed to him. 

The essential qualities of the young research-worker were a 
powerful gift of observation, thanks to which no important detail 
ever escaped him; a piercing insight into the causes implied by this 
or that established effect; and a high degree of skill in cutting 
through the tangled minutiae of any problem and revealing the 
main lines along which inquiry should move. These qualities he 
used generously in defence of the opsonic index against a deal of 
sniping. It was said that thousands of counts would be necessary 
before a reliable estimate could be arrived at, and that, even if 
the method were correct, it would be utterly impracticable* *No, 
replied Fleming, *an experienced and intelligent bacteriologist 
does not need to count as many cells as a beginner.* In his hands 
everything became easy. Two examples, chosen from the work 
of the laboratory, seemed to justify the confidence felt by the team 
in this famous and much-debated method. 

One of the workers in the lab., John Wells, who was on 
holiday in the country, wrote to say that he was suffering from 
influenza. Wright replied, telling him not to come back until he 
had completely recovered. Two months later, Wells wrote again: 
*I really must get back to work: this influenza seems to be inter 
minable. He returned and crawled about the laboratory, de 
pressed, feverish and obviously a very sick man. One day, Fleming, 
who had taken a sample of his blood, showed Freeman two glass 
slides, and said: Would you mind counting these two films? He 
had marked them *A and *B% but gave no further explanation. 
Freeman, after making a careful count, said: *Blood **B" has 
twice as much less effect upon the microbe as blood "A" ../ 

That tallies with my own finding, replied Fleming: "B" is 
the control sample; "A" comes from Wells. The microbe is that of 
"glanders" ...John Wells is suffering from the "glanders" ... Do 
you remember that young woman whose pony died? ... Wells, on 

58 



FLEMING AND WRIGHT 

that occasion, handled a culture and probably did not take suffi 
cient precautions ... The pony must have had the "glanders", 
and John Wells caught the infection ../ Six weeks later the 
diagnosis was confirmed, and John Wells died from the glanders 
which, at that time, was incurable. 

The other case was that of Dr May, a robust and red-faced 
Irishman who rejoiced in the nickname of Maisie . Like the 
others, he had contributed some of his blood to build up a reserve 
of normal blood for control purposes. Someone put the question: 
Does this total mixture really and truly represent the average 
blood of the lab. workers? The opsonic index of the mixture 
was compared with that of the individual donors. May noticed 
that his blood differed markedly from that of any of the others. 
Wright said to him: We won t take any more of your blood. You 
are not normal. Maisie continued to measure his opsonic index 
and established the fact that it was diverging more and more from 
the norm. Wright told him: I m afraid you ll have to leave the 
lab. You are suffering from a suppressed form of tuberculosis. 
Maisie laughed, for he did not feel ill, but, nevertheless, accepted 
a less exacting post in South Africa. When this became known in 
the medical world, many pathologists said: Wright really is com 
pletely mad! He s got in his laboratory a chap who s the very 
picture of health and, just because this man s opsonic index varies 
from the norm, he has calmly announced that he is tubercular. 
Never heard anything so ridiculous! ... May, however, had not 
been in Africa two months before the doctors found Koch bacillus 
in his sputum. The diagnosis by opsonic index had anticipated 
the clinical diagnosis by several weeks. 

It looked, therefore, as though this immense labour had not been 
in vain. But it condemned Wright s disciples to spend whole nights 
in the lab. The students of St Mary s knew that if they left a 
party round about two in the morning, they could always look 
in for a final mug of beer on Fleming, who at that hour would 
invariably be found bending over his microscope. They liked 
nothing better than to find him there at once unperturbed and 
welcoming wearing his neat bow tie and ready to listen to any 
thing they might have to say, while the eternal cigarette dangling 
from his lips, even when he was speaking, made it more than 
usually difficult to hear what he was saying. 

59 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Another of Fleming s qualities was the masterly manner in 
which he organized his expositions. From the very first his papers 
had been noted for the clarity of his scientific style. Wright, whose 
taste in literature was exacting and reliable, could not help recogniz 
ing that Fleming in his precise and sober way wrote well. c My 
colleague, Dr Alexander Fleming, has given in the treatise which 
is prefaced by these remarks of mine an admirable summing-up 
of the results obtained by the Inoculation Department of St Mary s 
Hospital ... Wright had moved on from preventive to therapeutic 
vaccination, and it is now necessary to give some account of the 
flow of ideas which had carried him forward in this direction. 

To immunize means, when there is any threat of infectious 
illness, to give to the blood the means of fighting against a possible 
attack. Jenner s inoculations as well as Pasteur s had been pre 
ventive. But Pasteur had also successfully treated those already 
infected with rabies. How had that been possible? Because rabies 
in the human being does not develop until some time after the 
bite has been inflicted by the mad dog. An injection of the virus 
in an attenuated dose, given during the period of incubation, 
stimulates the production of antibodies and with them the human 
system can fight the invasion before it is established; this is still, 
therefore, a sort of preventive inoculation. 

Wright took it as his starting-point. Why, he asked, should one 
not go farther? Up till then the immunizers had held the view 
that the invaded body was one and indivisible. But was this view 
correct? Observation had been recorded of numerous cases of local 
infections which had not become generalized. A patient might 
suffer from tuberculosis of the knee without the rest of his body 
being attacked. To what did this point? To this that the local 
natural defences, and they alone, had been carried by the enemy; 
that the microbial forces had won a bridge-head but nothing more. 
The general defence mechanism had not been put on the alert. 

Could the garrison be mobilized? Yes, said Wright, by means 
of auto-inoculations. It would be enough, in cases of local infec 
tion, carefully to determine the microbes responsible, to prepare 
from them dead cultures (auto-vaccines), to inject these into the 
patient, and then study his opsonic index to ascertain the effect 
of the treatment. Beyond this first area of research Wright could 
already see vast fields waiting to be explored by vaccine therapy 

60 



FLEMING AND WRIGHT 

e.g. blood poisonings and certain secondary infections which 
often accompany cancer. An enthusiastic inquirer with a fixed 
idea can find it everywhere. 

There can be no doubt that Fleming, like his colleagues, had a 
firm belief in vaccine therapy. Indeed, numerous cures brought 
about by its use were on record at St Mary s. This new conception 
made a great stir. Bacteriologists from all over the world came to 
study auto-vaccines and the opsonic index under Wright s direc 
tion. It was not easy to find accommodation for them in the two 
wretched rooms which were all the Department at its disposal; 
far too little for half a dozen foreign scientists in addition to 
Wright s six or seven assistants. Patients, attracted by favourable 
rumour, arrived in a steady flow. It was necessary to take blood- 
samples, to identify the microbes, to prepare the vaccines, and to 
keep a watch on the blood of the sufferers by making a count of 
the number of microbes absorbed by the leucocytes. It was gruel 
ling work, and there was a shortage of everything, of money as 
well as space. 

In 1907 the hospital authorities, who lacked the funds necessary 
to equip the upper floors of a recently constructed block (the 
Clarence Wing), offered them to Wright if he would undertake 
to obtain a subsidy. Wright had rich and powerful admirers. He 
rallied to his aid Lord Iveagh, Arthur James Balfour, Lord 
Fletcher Moulton and Sir Max Bonn. Between them they rapidly 
collected the sum needed. In addition, as soon as the laboratories 
were equipped, arrangements were made with a large firm of 
pharmaceutical chemists, Parke Davis & Co., to supply them 
with vaccines, serums and antitoxins for distribution. From that 
moment, the Department had permanent resources, but these 
were used to expand the laboratories, and the research-workers 
continued to be paid about what sweepers would earn today. In 
1909, the constitution of the Inoculation Department was definitely 
established at a meeting held at the House of Commons under the 
chairmanship of Balfour. The Department now became entirely 
independent. Its administration was vested in a committee which 
met only when Wright thought it necessary to call it together. 
Wright and two other members constituted a quorum. In this way 
was the benevolent tyranny of the Old Man legitimized. 

Few women ever came to the laboratory except when Wright 

61 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

had prepared what his friend Ehrlich called a Damenprogramme. 
On these occasions, Lady Horner, Mrs Bernard Shaw and other 
privileged females were put aufait with the latest discoveries by 
means of a number of spectacular demonstrations. Wright 
affected a profound contempt for the intelligence of women, and 
many of the midnight teas were devoted to his diatribes against 
the sex. The continual over-estimation of the feminine intelli 
gence 5 , said Wright, is very largely due to conjugal infatuation. 
Everyone must have noticed that wives who love their husbands 
adopt their ideas ... I once heard a mother say of her daughter, 
"she is so devoted to her husband that if he turned Mohammedan 
tomorrow, she would follow suit 35 ../ 1 

He maintained that the passions are almost always engendered 
by bacterial toxins. His taste for Greek words led him to explain 
the need felt by so many men and women to press against one 
another, to clasp their arms round the beloved object, and to lean 
his (or her) head on her (or his) shoulder, as a stereotropic instinct, 
in other words, the desire to find something solid to lean on. He 
had written a whole book against Votes for Women which, at that 
time, were being violently demanded by the Suffragettes, and had 
collected all the most wounding things that the most famous 
authors had said about the second sex 5 , from Michelet s A man 
loves God: a woman loves a man 5 , to Meredith s I expect that 
Woman will be the last thing civilized by Man 5 and Dr Johnson s 
remark that there is always something a woman will prefer to the 
truth. 5 

The man who would pursue a great design and work without 
intermission should, according to Wright, live completely 
separated from women, a rule which he applied rigorously in his 
own case, for he kept his family in the country while he himself 
lived in London. The laboratory was his home. Before making a 
decision on any subject, a man should always have numerous 
conversations with those who are expert in it was another of his 
sayings. And so it was that he surrounded himself with disciples. 
Some of them, like Freeman, stimulated him and led him on to 
make his most brilliant repartees: others, like Fleming, gave him 
their sureness of judgment, technical skill and sturdy good sense, 
though at times they might be silently rebellious. 

1 Sir Almroth Wright, Alethetropic Logic (Heinemann, 1953), p. 40. 

62 



FLEMING AND WRIGHT 

Fleming had quickly fitted into this new world which he had 
entered quite by chance. The work demanded more of human 
nature than human nature could give. Every morning the young 
men had to make the rounds of the wards, for Wright still clung 
to the view that research- workers should also be practising 
doctors. The afternoon began with a consultation at which those 
cases regarded by the old-fashioned doctors as hopeless were 
examined. Samples of blood were taken and labelled. Fleming was 
always anxious to get these preliminaries over quickly, for he was 
in a hurry to get back to the laboratory and prepare his slides. 
After dinner these innumerable specimens were studied. The 
workers used their own blood for control purposes. We were , says 
Colebrook, c so many human pincushions. 5 All this was not without 
danger. 

Meanwhile, though never abandoning these exacting labours, 
Fleming continued to read for his final medical examinations 
which he passed in 1908, coming out, as usual, top, and being 
awarded the Gold Medal of the University of London. Nor should 
it be forgotten that at this time, too, and without any preparation, 
he sat for and got his F.R.C.S. As though this were not enough, 
he wrote a thesis on Acute Bacterial Infections for one of the 
prizes regularly offered by his own Faculty (St Mary s), and 
again headed the list, winning the Cheadle Medal. His success 
was announced in the St Mary s Hospital Gazette as follows: 
* Mr Fleming, who recently was bracketed for the Gold Medal and 
who seems to have taken the Fellowship in his stride, is one of Sir 
Almroth Wright s most enthusiastic followers, and we see great 
distinction in store for him in the future. The far-sighted author of 
this article was Zachary Cope, who later became Sir Zachary 
Cope and a great surgeon. 

Fleming s thesis on bacterial infections and the means of fighting 
them constitutes, as it were, a prefiguration of the line of research 
which the author was to follow all through his life. In it he 
presents an inventory of the contents of the arsenal at that time 
available to the medical profession in its war against bacteria: 
surgery, where the centre of infection is accessible; antiseptics; 
general methods of increasing the patient s resistance; the use of 
products which have an effect upon certain specific bacteria 
(quinine for malaria; mercury for syphilis, etc.); ways of increasing 

63 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

the exudation of the blood-lymph into the infected tissues; and, 
naturally, serums and vaccines. 

He gave the place of honour in his essay to Wright s vaccine 
therapy. The latter s enemies asked ironically: What is the point 
in adding dead microbes to a body which is already carrying on a 
battle against living ones? 5 and, with an air of triumph, brought 
up against him the phenomenon known as infectious endocarditis, 
where, the valves of the heart being contaminated, the microbes 
are continually shed into the general circulatory system. Accord 
ing to Wright s theory, this process should be a natural form of 
vaccination, and there should follow an increase in the resistance 
of the organism. In fact, nothing of the sort occurred. The blood 
did not produce antibodies. 

Fleming, having come up against this obstacle, ventured to put 
forward an hypothesis. The intravenous route, he suggested, was 
not suited to the injection of a vaccine. But this theory still needed 
to be confirmed by experiment. Being unable and unwilling to use 
a patient for this purpose, he became his own guinea-pig and 
submitted to an intravenous injection of a staphylococcic vaccine. 
This was a rather courageous thing to do. Intravenous injections 
were held at that time to be dangerous, and no one could say with 
any certainty what the consequences might be. One Saturday he 
had a hundred and fifty million dead staphylococci injected into a 
vein. On the Sunday he had a feeling of nausea, a headache and a 
high temperature. Given such symptoms, it was reasonable to 
expect an increase of resistance in the blood. There was, however, 
none, whereas the same quantity of staphylococci administered 
hypodermically caused it to rise sharply. This seemed to justify the 
hypothesis that inoculation into the blood-stream, which occurs 
naturally in endocarditis, is a bad method, which produces the 
maximum toxic effect with the minimum of immunization. The 
results of the experiment had been what the young doctor had 
expected. 1 

This thesis on the infections is important, providing us, as it 
does, at the very dawn of a life devoted to medicine, with a picture 
of the direction that life was to take. All through his working 
career, Fleming was to seek one thing, and one thing only: a means 
of fighting infections which at that time were looked upon as the 

1 St Mary s Hospital Gazette, 1908. 



FLEMING AND WRIGHT 

most dangerous of all the scourges of the human race. For this line 
of research he felt himself to be well equipped. He was a born 
naturalist, and was fully conscious of his abilities. It would, there 
fore,, be a great mistake to think of him as an embarrassed and 
discontented man living in a refined, literary circle much superior 
to anything to which he had been accustomed. For soured and 
querulous persons he felt nothing but contempt. Alec was always 
happy, and always on top of his work , writes one of his colleagues, 
Dr Hollis; c there was never any sign in him of bitterness or 
fatigue ... His attitude to his research- work seemed to be a 
combination of humour and seriousness. Here, too, is what 
Professor Cruickshank thinks: He tolerated, and was probably 
amused by, sophistication in life, and by the kind of intellectual 
philosophy in which Almroth Wright indulged. Although he took 
little part in argument, one gets the impression that, even in his 
early days, his opinion was greatly respected. His own infrequency 
of speech did not at all depress him. He liked listening. It was one 
of his strong points. Wright s tremendous personality dominated 
the scene, but the tranquil Fleming, for ever at his side, was loved 
and esteemed. 



CHAPTER FIVE 

THE PRENTICE YEARS 

Science is the tool and the reinforcement of the spirit, and the spirit will find 
its salvation, not in turning back upon itself, whicrus the pursuit of a shadow, 
but in seeking out the object and grappling with it, ALAIN 

WRIGHT and his disciples believed in vaccines and the 
opsonic index. They proved their faith by devoting their 
days and their nights to the practice of their religion. Other 
scientists in other parts of the world were hoping to conquer the 
dangerous microbes by other means. One of Wright s German 
friends, a scientist in horn-rimmed spectacles, with bright eyes and 
a loud, cheerful voice, was looking, in a mood of passionate 
confidence, for the magic bullet which should kill the invaders 
without harming the invaded. 

Born in 1854, Ehrlich had been a student at the time when the 
great German dye-enterprises were coming into their own. Being a 
chemist as well as a doctor, he had been deeply interested, while 
still a young man, in the colouring of animal and human tissues. 
This staining turned out to be selective; that is to say that a 
particular dye became fixed to one particular part of the body. 
For example, methylene-blue coloured predominantly the nerve 
tissue, and this made it possible to follow the course of the nerves, 
Ehrlich had also established the fact that the noxious microbes 
took certain colorants better than the cells of the organism which 
harboured them. 

Why? For the same reason, said Ehrlich, who was accustomed to 
thinking as a chemist, that the toxins of diphtheria attack the cardiac 
muscles, or those of tetanus the nerve-cells, in a selective manner, 
which is as much as to say that there is a chemical affinity between 
the molecules. It follows, therefore, that the beneficent antitoxins 
must consist of molecules which, by affinity, are led to combine 
with the toxins and neutralize them. 

In 1904, Ehrlich, who at that time was Director of the Institute 

66 



THE PRENTICE YEARS 

of Serotherapy in Frankfurt, embarked with his assistant, a 
Japanese doctor called Shiga, on an immense programme of 
experiments. He tried out all his coloured projectiles against the 
trypanosomes a more than usually formidable species of parasite. 
Following the practice of Maurice ]NTicolle and Mesnil, he em 
ployed particularly active products the trypan-red and the 
trypan-blue with reasonably encouraging results. Shortly after 
wards he was to win his greatest victory, not against the trypano 
somes, but against the pale treponema, or spirochaete, which 
causes syphilis, and this by employing not dyes but arsenical 
compounds. One may not always find what one is looking for but, 
if one looks hard enough, one often finds something. Ehrlich 
scored a bull on a target at which he was not aiming. 

In the sixteenth century, Paracelsus had tried using arsenic 
against syphilis, but without much success, and consequently 
doctors turned to mercury, and were to remain loyal to it for a 
long time. Between 1905 and 1907, the chemists had produced an 
arsenical compound atoxyl which had the desired effect both 
on the trypanosomes and the spirochaetes. Unfortunately, this 
product, in spite of its name, was toxic. Ehrlich set himself, there 
fore, to transform atoxyl and to make a new magic bullet of it* 
The necessary research demanded infinite patience. For each new 
derivative of atoxyl which the chemists created under Ehrlich s 
direction, it was essential to determine, first of all, the curative 
dose, the one that would destroy the microbes (C), and then the 

maximum dose which the body could tolerate (T) . The relation- 
Q 

ship ~ indicated the efficacy or the danger of the drug. If C was 

greater than T, then obviously the new product was worthless. 
Thousands of mice and guinea-pigs were sacrificed in this battle. 
In 1909 the compound No, 418 seemed to offer hope, but no more 
than hope. Ehrlich, exhausted but enthusiastic, continued with 
his massacre of mice. At last, in May 1909, the compound 606 
destroyed all the trypanosomes without killing either mice or 
guinea-pigs. Some time later, when the substance was used for 
treating syphilitic lesions in rabbits, complete cures were achieved 
in three weeks. From now on, so it seemed, a magic bullet really 
did exist with which to attack and overcome one of humanity s 
worst enemies. It flew straight to the target, namely, the parasite, 

67 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

without doing any harm to the sufferer s tissues. Ehrlich gave it the 
name salvarsan (that which saves by arsenic). 

Ehrlich was a pleasant companion and a passionate talker. The 
freakishness of his mind delighted Wright, and he was soon a great 
favourite at the lab. When he came to London to lecture on 
chemotherapy (which Wright, punctilious in all linguistic matters, 
tried, in vain, to rename pharmacotherapy ) he entrusted some 
doses of salvarsan to the scientists of St Mary s and, at once, 
Fleming became a past master in the art of applying the new 
treatment. This was no easy task. The substance rapidly became 
oxidized when in contact with the air, and the intramuscular 
injection was extremely painful. Ehrlich s new Japanese assistant, 
Hata, a technician of quite extraordinary skill, had adminis 
tered salvarsan to rabbits by the intravenous route, but in 
1909 few doctors knew how to make an injection into the blood 
vessels. 

Dr G. W. B. James remembers how in 1909 he and a friend 
watched Flem give 606 to a patient. These young men of St Mary s 
knew and admired Fleming as the winner of the Gold MedaL I 
have a vivid recollection of him standing beside the bed in a long 
white coat, 3 says Dr James, setting up a glass reservoir containing 
a yellow fluid, inserting a needle into a vein on the patient s arm, 
and running the fluid directly into the blood stream. It must be 
remembered that intravenous therapy was new and strange to 
the students of 1909 or 1910. This vivid picture of Flem has 
always had a dramatic value for me, for, in addition to the exciting 
intravenous method, there was the rapidity with which the 606 
took effect, so different from the slow working of the mercurial 
treatment with which I was familiar from my having attended in 
the Out-Patients Department of the hospital. 

C I remember speaking to Flem (greatly daring) while he was 
at the bedside, and asking him what the yellow fluid was. His 
manner was slightly alarming in those days. He fixed me with a 
blue eye, and gave me the chemical formula of 606: "Dioxy- 
diamide-arsenobenzol-dehydro-chlorine. * 

I was none the wiser. 

c "What is it you want to know?" he asked. 

c "Well, sir, just look..." 

* "What d you think this is?" and he pointed to the man in 

68 



THE PRENTICE YEARS 

the bed, who only too visibly was suffering from the most horrible 
syphilitic lesions. 

We both of us replied: "Syphilis." 

* "And how would you treat it?" said he. "Mercury, I suppose, 
eh? Well, just you watch. This stuff acts much more rapidly." 

When I came to know him better, I realized that his icy and 
laconic manner had no hostile intention but was "just Fleming". 
After we had left the patient s bedside on this now far-distant 
occasion, Flem took my friend and me into the laboratory where 
he worked, and told us the whole story of salvarsan, impressing 
both of us with his encyclopedic knowledge. At that phase of a 
student s life, a difference of four years in age means a great deal. 
I know that my friend and I felt that we had "discovered" Flem. 
Certainly we found him a most stimulating and interesting 
teacher and, looking back, I realize how good he was to two eager 
and callow youths. When leaving us, he said: "Come back and 
take a look at this chap tomorrow." We did so. Everything was 
clean and cleared up. We were staggered, and he thoroughly 
enjoyed our stupefaction. 

After that he was always willing to see us. The amount of work 
he put in at the lab. was tremendous. One of the most interesting 
occupations was to sit and watch him making things out of glass 
and tubing. He seemed able to do anything with molten glass, 
constructing not only the pipettes he needed for his work, but 
small models of every sort of animal. One, I remember, was a cat 
which he moulded from red-hot glass. When it had cooled it 
looked positively alive, and he added a whole series of tiny 
creatures running away from pussy. 

e We remained good friends until his death. I was constantly 
impressed by his fidelity in friendship. It seemed to be impossible 
ever to offend Fleming. One could say exactly what one thought 
to him things, very often, which another person would have 
taken in bad part, but not so Fleming. 

He had a somewhat materialistic outlook in medical matters 
as was probably inevitable, given the nature of his work and 
found it very hard to accept what he called the "rot" talked by 
psychologists. We had many tussles in later years, after I had 
specialized in psychiatry. He stuck doggedly to his scientific facts. 
Either bacteria existed or they didn t. He was determined, I felt, 

69 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

never to go beyond facts which could be seen and measured. I 
remember trying to explain to him the theory of the unconscious 
mind. "What s the use of talking about the unconscious mind?" 
he protested. "There s no such thing. If you are unconscious, you 
don t have a mind for the time being." 

c The only time he listened, with a somewhat humorous and 
inquiring look on his face, was when I asked him to tell me how 
much of an iceberg is visible above water. He said he had no idea. 
"One-eighth," I told him. "The other seven-eighths are beneath 
the surface, and the invisible part is like the unconscious mind." 
A mischievous twinkle came into his eyes. One never knew what 
he was really thinking, or whether one had convinced him. He 
loved argument, and contradicted for the sake of contradicting. 
He could infuriate you as an adversary even though he was on the 
best of terms with you as a friend. In his own field, he was 
invincible. His knowledge of bacteriology was monumental. 

He could never resist the pleasure of bringing down to earth 
any interlocutor who had taken flight into those upper regions 
which he considered tp be inaccessible. Once, when arguing with a 
friend of his about the Universe, Time and Space, he said, showing 
his watch: This time is quite enough for me. So impenetrable was 
the mask he habitually wore that one could never be sure whether 
he was just enjoying an argument as an argument, or was serious. 
Only the twinkle in his eyes gave him away to those who knew him. 

In collaboration with Colebrook, he published in the Lancet, a 
note on The Use of Salvarsan in the Treatment of Syphilis . The 
results had been astonishing and, from now on, he had great hopes 
of chemotherapy. Wright, on the other hand, was sceptical. At the 
beginning of his career, he had said: The doctor of the future will 
be an immunizer/ and he stuck to that opinion. My anticipa 
tions have already been justified. I do not know anybody who, 
having tried vaccine therapy in the treatment of local bacterial 
affections, has not been convinced of its efficacy. The time when 
the doctor will be, for the most part, an immunizer is visibly 
drawing nearer. In spite of his honesty of mind and his long 
intimacy with Ehrlich, he watched with a suspicious eye the entry 
of chemical remedies on the scene. To the Medical Research Club 
he declared: "The use of chemotherapy for the treatment of 
bacterial infections in human beings will never be possible. 

70 



THE PRENTICE YEARS 

His disciples were less dogmatic. They were beginning to realize 
that the opsonic index, interesting though it might be, was 
unlikely to become a factor in ordinary practice, because of the 
superhuman work it entailed. Only Wright s prestige and 
authority could keep his team of brilliant young men in the 
laboratory, night after night, counting microbes. Some of them 
found it very difficult to stay awake when they resumed their 
duties next morning, though Flem, after a sleepless night spent 
with his eye to the microscope, was able to retain his capacity for 
work. He would be the first to turn up, looking as fresh and alert as 
though he had just got back from a country holiday. Several of 
the research staff Fleming, Noon, Brinton had to run a 
practice outside laboratory hours in order to make a living. 
Freeman, who had taken a house at 30 Devonshire Place, provided 
consulting-rooms for his colleagues. Fleming and Colebrook were 
for some time, thanks to Ehrlich, almost the only doctors in 
England to make use of salvarsan, and this very soon resulted in a 
flow of patients. At that time it was necessary, when employing 
the treatment, to inject great quantities of the liquid. Fleming had 
invented a very simple apparatus (two glass jars, a syringe, two 
rubber tubes, and two taps with double nozzles) which made 
possible the treatment of four patients in the same time as would 
previously have been occupied in making a single injection. In the 
London Scottish, from which more than one unhappy victim 
of the pale tryponema had recourse to him, he was known as 
Private 606 , and a caricature showed him armed with a syringe 
in place of a rifle. He loved the spectacular character of salvarsan 
cures. 

His diagnoses were absolutely reliable. Professor Newcomb 
gives a characteristic example of this. A patient suffering from an 
ulcer on the lip had been for six months in University College 
Hospital for tubercular ulceration. Every known treatment had 
been tried, but without success. Then the patient was sent to 
St Mary s for vaccination. The ulcer continued to get worse. 
One day, the doctor in charge of the case being absent, Fleming 
took his place for twenty-four hours. Now medical etiquette lays 
it down that a deputy must never modify a treatment. But 
Fleming, who cared little about orthodoxy, at once did three 
highly irregular things. He took a sample of the man s blood, 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

gave him an injection of salvarsan, and sent Newcomb a section 
from the tissues, labelled: Ulcer of the lip: tubercle? 

"Well/ says Newcomb, C I thought according to Flem it s 
tubercle, so tubercle it is ... but there was one odd thing about it, 
it was full of plasma cells. So I wrote it up as "Tubercular lesioQ 
of the lip. Great number of plasma cells present, probably the 
result of secondary infection". Next day, at lunch, Flem gave me 
a solemn look and said: "Funny sort of tubercular lesion I sent 
you the other day, wasn t it?" I said: "Yes, it was, rather/ 5 "Very 
funny indeed," said Flem. "I treated the patient with salvarsan 
and the thing healed up completely. Extremely odd tubercular 
lesion to yield to salvarsan like that!" He never let me forget it and, 
whenever I got a bit uppish, would say "What about that tuber 
cular lesion of the lip?" " 

C I think it says a lot for Flem s character*, writes Dr Fry, that 
everyone liked him, though he was always right, and always had 
the last word. People don t usually like those who are always right. 
But he was so nice about it, that you couldn t not like him. Of 
course he couldn t resist saying "I told you so," but he said it as a 
child might have done. He loved pulling your leg if he had done 
something better than you, and enjoyed it all thoroughly. By great 
good luck, there were very few in the lab. who hadn t got a 
sense of humour. No one without it would have lasted long with 
Wright and Fleming always ready to poke fun at them, each in his 
own way/ 

There were times at the laboratory teas when Fleming seemed 
to take an impish pleasure in saying something about somebody 
which would compel the blushing victim to stammer out a denial. 
*Did you know, sir, 3 he would say, for instance, c that Giles is in 
love? 3 The question, put to the Chief, before an audience, con 
sisting of the whole of the lab. staff, had the effect of a stone 
dropped into a pond. Flem took a particular pleasure in studying 
the reactions produced by such utterances. He never said anything 
malicious, but found much amusement in the horrified explana 
tions of the particular colleague to whom he might have drawn 
attention with his chaff. 

His sometimes caustic humour was not resented. We were all 
very fond of Flem, 3 says Freeman, he was a lovable character, but 
not expansive. He would answer a question in one word, and then go 

72 



THE PRENTICE YEARS 

mum when the others joined in. We used to say that he was a typical 
Scot, and that his conversation consisted mostly of grunts. It wasn t, 
of course, strictly true, but just a little joke between us and him. 3 

He was always ready to help a friend. Hay den, one of the 
doctors at St Mary s, had fallen a victim to poliomyelitis and was 
partially paralysed. This disaster was made the worse for him by 
reason of the fact that he had a family to keep. The legs have 
nothing to do with science, Fleming told him. If you want some 
real work to do, come along to the lab. He found no difficulty 
in persuading Wright to take on this excellent research- worker 
and Hayden used to move about the laboratory in a wheel 
chair. The team was a happy and united family with a strong 
feeling of solidarity. When Hayden died, his colleagues, though 
they had little money to spare, took it upon themselves to educate 
his two sons. 

This comradeship in work and play had a sort of cosy charm 
unlike anything to be found elsewhere. Dr Porteous, who 
joined the Department in 1911 as a junior, found the climate of 
the lab. delightful. *A lot of people had told me that Fleming 
was reticent and forbidding, but I never found him so. The 
impression he made on me was that of a kindly colleague who was 
always ready to help a newcomer. His enjoyment of fun some 
times led him to indulge in practical jokes, as when, for instance, 
he put a smear of Plasticine on the lens of a microscope, to see 
how the victim would react. It was true, of course, that he was 
always a bit shy, but his shyness never came from lack of self- 
confidence. He knew that he knew^ and that gave him a great 
feeling of security. Certain inhibitions, dating from far back, made 
it difficult for him to express himself freely about anything invol 
ving the emotions. But where a practical problem was concerned, 
he would deal with it easily, directly and unaffectedly. If one of 
his colleagues, even Wright, put forward some technical absurdity, 
he would cut it to pieces in fine style. But he found it impossible 
to talk about his feelings, and those of others, when they were 
publicly displayed, made him uncomfortable. He was inclined to 
think exaggerated and highfalutin what anybody less severe 
would have thought only human. 

With a friend of whom he was genuinely fond, and who obviously 
took pleasure in being with him, he would drop his rather dour 

73 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

mask for a second or so, and his whole face would light up. His 
look of rather tense concentration would break into a charming 
smile, and an almost touching expression of sweetness would show 
in his blue eyes. But such occasions were exceptional, and never 
lasted for long. In spite of his small stature, which his great breadth 
of shoulder seemed to make more obvious, one always got the 
impression that he was a presence 5 . Of this he was not aware and 
suffered much from being a small man. Speaking of the son of a 
friend who was sitting for an examination, he said: He doesn t 
need to bother about exams: he is tall, and tall people can do 
anything and go anywhere! 3 There was about his walk a sort of 
easy swing, accompanied by an almost aggressive hunching of 
the shoulders. This curious gait may have had something to do 
with his having worn a kilt when in the London Scottish, but it 
was also a form of challenge, an exhibition of self-confidence. The 
way in which he could control his body was exceptional and 
accounted for his skill in shooting and at croquet, in which game 
his proficiency was almost uncanny and quite fascinating. 



In London he had got to know several people who had no 
connection with either the hospital or his own family. An 
Australian doctor named Page, who was on a course at St Mary s, 
introduced him to friends of his, the Pegrams, who lived in 
Warwick Gardens. He was a great success with them, more 
especially with the small, twelve-year-old Marjory Pegram. Alec , 
she writes, c was then in his late twenties, a serious and silent young 
man, with a massive head, beautiful eyes and broad, strong hands. 
He had a simplicity of mind which made him really enjoy playing 
with a child, and he would invent games with a zest which was 
completely free from any hint of condescension. To me he was the 
ideal companion. We used to play eccentric games of golf together 
which were terribly exciting. 

* "Fll tell you what," he would say, "you do the whole round 
with a putter and Fll beat you with nothing but a niblick." I knew 
that he would, and he always did. On wet days he devised elabor 
ate games of golf on the carpet, where it needed extreme delicacy 
of touch to make the ball stop dead on one small spot. But Alec 
could always do it. 

74 



THE PRENTICE YEARS 

*My parents were devoted to him and my mother talked to him 
as though he were the same age as me. "Now, Alec, don t be 
silly!" she would say when he made one of those outrageous 
assertions which he loved to toss into a conversation to liven it up. 
One of his favourite gambits, which unfailingly got a rise out of 
her, was to say, apropos of one of his miraculous cures: e< Oh, it was 
nothing to do with me; he d have got well anyway/ 5 or to reply, if 
somebody asked him what some patient he had cured had been 
suffering from: "Damned if /know!" 

Marjory Pegram had an uncle, a painter named Ronald Gray, 
who was afflicted with tuberculosis of the knee. Fleming suggested 
vaccine therapy, looked after Gray with the utmost devotion, and 
cured him, 

He was less successful with Marjory herself, who was prone to 
attacks of asthma. He tried so many treatments on her that she 
was nicknamed in the family Alec s guinea-pig . She loved her 
visits to the laboratory, which she found mysterious and fascina 
ting. She admired especially the glass slides on which the stains 
had made little patches. One day Alec told me that there was a 
new method of finding out to what asthmatics were sensitive, and 
in some trepidation I bared my thigh on which Alec made a series 
of scratches and then dropped different liquids into them, saying, 
as he did so, "eggs, feathers, horsehair, seaweed, fish" and so on. 
We then sat in breathless silence to see if any of them became 
inflamed. The result was bitterly disappointing, since only seaweed 
showed anything at all. Alec said, the next time we met: "Did you 
have a very sore leg?" "Yes," I said, "I did." "I thought as much," 
he remarked gaily, "you see, I did it all wrong!" 

c He had some curious mannerisms which enthralled me. When 
asked a question, there was always a time-lag before he answered 
and, when the answer came, he shut his eyes. The far-back-in-the- 
throat Scottish "1" was exaggerated with him into something more 
like a guttural French "r", and this made it difficult for foreigners 
to understand him when he said "I must take a specimen of your 
blood"... 

Ronald Gray, at the time when Fleming was looking after him, 
lodged with a Mrs Hammersley, the wife of Hugh Hammers- 
ley, who was one of the directors of Cox & Co., the Army 
agents. She had a lovely eighteenth-century house and a wide 

75 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

circle of friends among painters and writers. George Moore, Wilson 
Steer and Ronald Gray were regulars of long standing, and 
their conversation was animated and witty. 

At Gray s bedside Fleming met Mrs Richard Davis, a good- 
looking and elegant woman, the daughter-in-law of an anti 
quarian dealer in Bond Street who was a specialist in old French 
furniture. She was brilliantly intelligent and entertained many 
artists and men of letters in the lovely house which she and her 
husband had in Ladbroke Terrace. The whole of this group 
immediately attached itself to Fleming. His medical skill amazed 
them and they were impressed by his modest silences. Ronald 
Gray had to go twice a week to St Mary s for treatment. Mrs Davis 
used to go with him, and Sir Almroth, who loved the company of 
artists, invited them to have tea with him. Fleming, now more 
sociable and tame, called Mrs Davis Davey and used to greet 
her, when she visited the laboratory, with c Oh! I am glad to see 
you! I badly need some of your delicious blood! 

His new friends decided that Flem must go out more, relax a 
bit, and learn to dance. Mrs Davis was on intimate terms with the 
Wertheimers, rich collectors known all over the world and great 
patrons of the arts, whose portraits were painted by Sargent (the 
whole family is now in the Tate Gallery) . Fleming was delighted 
at discovering under their roof a world which was entirely new 
to him, the existence of which he had never so much as suspected. 
Their house was more like a palace, full of beautiful furniture and 
rare porcelain, with a perfectly trained staff, and a table which 
abounded in delicious food and wines. Fleming loved going there 
and meeting the artists who frequented it. He had a natural 
good taste and all his life long, so far as his means permitted, was 
an assiduous attendant at auction-sales, and built up a collection 
of objets d art. 

Once a week the Wertheimers, who had installed a ball-room, 
invited their daughter s friends to what, in those days, were called 
hops . Fleming often took part in them, though he never became 
a good dancer. It was then that he ordered his first dress-suit and 
solemnly said to the tailor: Don t make me look like Carl Brisson, 
but a sober scientist. (Carl Brisson was a very charming musical- 
comedy star!) 

It was Ronald Gray who introduced him to another pleasant 

76 



THE PRENTICE YEARS 

circle, which was to play a great part in his life. The Chelsea Arts 
Club. It had as its premises an old house in a quarter traditionally 
associated with painters and writers. Strictly speaking, only 
artists were eligible for membership, but there were a few 
honorary members, of whom Fleming was one. He made a point 
of treating his fellow-members free, and got them into St Mary s 
whenever he thought that any of them needed a period in hospital. 
He got into the habit of going to the club for a game of snooker 
whenever he had a free hour or so. 

The other players soon noticed his schoolboyish zest for the 
game, his dislike of playing Tor safety , his obvious delight when 
he brought off a good stroke and balls went bang into the pockets. 
If ever anyone offered him gratuitous advice on how to play a 
shot, he would immediately relapse into silence, stare at the 
speaker for a few moments, and then play the shot in his own way 
often a very unorthodox one. Frequently those who were looking 
on were staggered by the success of these unusual methods. 

If, after the spin of a coin had decided the opposing sides, the 
odds, on form, seemed to be against him and his partner, he 
played with an even greater zest than usual. C I often played with 
him against reputedly better men , says A. Murray, and we quite 
frequently won. We were both stubborn Scots, determined not to 
be outdone by mere Englishmen. 3 

Gray told him that he would have to paint a picture to justify 
his admission to the club. Fleming said he was sorry, but he wasn t 
an artist. Gray forced a brush into his hand, and ordered him to 
paint a farm scene. Much against his will, Fleming produced a 
cow, though it was difficult to recognize it as such. 

Thank you, said Gray, it is a masterpiece, and exactly what I 
wanted/ 

Some time later, he took Fleming to an exhibition where the 
famous picture was prominently displayed. The painter of the 
Tortrait of a Cow was much amused, the more so since several 
critics were loud in their praise of his sophisticated naivety . He 
heard two elderly ladies of distinguished appearance discussing his 
work . Perhaps you are right, said one of them, this modern art 
must mean something, though I confess that I cannot make out 
what it is. 

To make quite certain that his election to the club would 

77 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

stand, he asked one of his friends, Dr E. J. Storer, to buy the 
picture he himself providing the money. It then occurred to 
him that he would also have to pay the gallery s commission. An 
agreement was therefore come to that Storer should do no more 
than ask the price and then declare that it was too high. The 
committee fell in with this little plot and Fleming was made a 
life-member. He constantly, until the day of his death, met most 
of the great artists of the day there. He had a great fondness for 
the place and soon became very popular among his fellow 
members. 

The Chelsea Arts Club gave an annual fancy-dress ball. Mrs 
Davis and Ronald Gray dragged him to it. But he had to take a 
partner, and Steer suggested a pretty girl, Lily Montgomery, who 
had often sat for him. Flem went as a negro and thoroughly 
enjoyed the evening. In the following year he again went to the 
ball, this time with his friend Dr Porteous, both of them dressed as 
little girls in short red frocks and black stockings. Even bacteri 
ologists can unbend on occasion. 



At the laboratory, he went on with his own work in addition to 
his routine duties. In 1909 he published in the Lancet an excellent 
article on acne. He next devised a simple modification of the 
Wasserrnan Reaction in the diagnosis of syphilis, a small-scale 
reaction requiring only a tiny blood-sample drawn from the tip 
of the finger in a capsule. He enjoyed nothing better than tinkering 
and mending defects in pieces of laboratory equipment with any 
odd thing that came to hand, a bicycle-clip, for instance. Little by 
little, he elaborated, for his own use, a philosophy of research. This 
consisted in making no rigid plans, but in going on with his 
regular work with one eye always cocked so as not to miss the 
unexpected a,nd gauge its importance. 

The Chief still played the part of an inspired Olympian. One 
of Wright s virtues was that he allowed his disciples complete 
freedom in research. He himself continued to devise new and 
difficult techniques. One of these he called c wash and afterwash . 
It enabled them to make, in the specially long capillary stem of a 
pipette, serial dilutions of infected material. 

When Freeman and Noon went, at the invitation of Professor 

78 



THE PRENTICE YEARS 

Jules Bordet, to demonstrate these techniques at the Pasteur 
Institute, Maurice Nicolle said: These methods are more suitable 
for conjurers, or as a means of amusing children. That was true. 
They demanded great dexterity. They delighted Fleming. He knew 
that they were complicated, but also that he was more able than 
anybody else, thanks to his own skill, to operate them. Besides, the 
Chief championed them, and Fleming was nothing if not a loyal 
disciple. 

There was merit in his loyalty, for in the world outside St Mary s 
the waves of hostility now breaking over Wright were becoming 
more and more violent. Some of his fellow scientists had in 
vented a nickname for him, c Sir Almost Right , and even inside 
the hospital many of the doctors and surgeons were growing 
sceptical about therapeutic vaccines. Vaccinate in order to prevent 
YES: vaccinate in order to cure NO. Wright , says Professor 
Newcomb, c produced storms wherever he went. Some scientists 
used to say that his work was all nonsense. Fleming continued to 
support his master strongly and, if there was a storm round him, 
he was sure to be in it. 

Some of the big-wigs of Harley Street, annoyed by Wright s 
contempt for what he called non-scientific medicine , took their 
revenge by denying the results obtained at St Mary s. The statisti 
cians, who had already been up in arms against Wright in the 
days of anti-typhoid vaccination, now returned to the charge. 
Wright replied by saying that for facts as different among them 
selves as are medical cases mathematical statistics should give way 
to what again inventing a name he called the diacritical 
judgment , that supreme quality of the human mind which makes 
it possible to pronounce on individual, and not concordant, 
phenomena. He added: Diacritical judgment is notably lacking 
in women and in Bernard Shaw. 

There were times when even the disciples had doubts. In our 
enthusiasm , said Colebrook, we had attached too little im 
portance to the vis medicatrix naturae. Was it by vaccine therapy or 
by nature that local infections were cured? In fact, ulcers did 
close, tubercular glands did disappear, boils were reabsorbed. 
Obviously there were cases of failure, but when these occurred the 
reason given was that the infection had become generalized before 
treatment. Another charge brought against the St Mary s team 

79 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

had to do with the sale of vaccines by the Inoculation Department 
to a large firm of pharmaceutical chemists. But what was wrong 
with that? The sums produced by these sales were used exclusively 
in developing the laboratories. The research-workers, including 
Wright, were still in receipt of ludicrously inadequate salaries. 

Wright had made still other loud-voiced enemies by reason of 
his attacks on the Suffragettes. He obstinately maintained that 
there is an unbridgeable gulf between the functioning of the male 
and female minds. In this connection Colebrook quotes something 
Wright once said about women: The reason we feed them and 
keep them is that they shall have no freedom of expression/ He had 
written a whole book, The Unexpurgated Case against Woman 
Suffrage, for the purpose of showing that the Suffragettes were 
unsatisfied women who dreamed of an epicene world ( epicene 5 
from the Greek epikoinos\ common to, or identical with, both sexes) 
in which men and women should work as equals, shoulder to 
shoulder at the same tasks. In fact, said Wright, women were 
receiving preferential treatment and preventing men from doing 
the best work of which they were capable. This was a doctrine 
which he could impose within the four walls of his own laboratory, 
but in the world at large the powerful forces of femininity held it 
to be an abomination. 

Finally, Wright delighted in adopting for his own purposes the 
policy of divide and rule 3 . He told Freeman that he looked upon 
him as his "son in science , and that, as such, he would one day 
take his place as the Head of the Department. But he had made 
almost identical promises to Fleming. Was he deliberately trying 
to foster an antagonism between two men who, though very 
different from one another, had so far been friends? By reason of 
his title as Director, of the prestige which his work legitimately 
gave to him, and of the financial support which he could secure 
for the Department, he continued to wield the supreme power of an 
absolute monarch. Leonard Noon and John Freeman had carved 
out for themselves a small, self-governing principality within which 
they concentrated on hay-fever and allergies in general, with 
considerable success. Fleming, for his part, worked directly with 
the Chief. 

This he did not in the least mind, for he felt a deep veneration 
for that illustrious and picturesque figure. He admired the Old 

80 



THE PRENTICE YEARS 

Man who for so many years, seated at his work-table, using 
ridiculously simple equipment, a few test-tubes, glass slides and 
pipettes, a few rubber teats, some scraps of cardboard, a little 
paraffin and sealing-wax, and with no other resource than the 
inexhaustible ingenuity of his mind and the dexterity of his hands , 
had devised a whole arsenal of microtechniques for following and 
measuring the processes of infection and immunity. This hard and 
monotonous existence, devoted to the cause of science, gave 
Fleming a deep and secret happiness. 

Would he some day have the good fortune to make the brilliant 
discovery which so much enthusiastic work and so hard a discipline 
deserved? Breathing the air of the laboratory in which the delicate 
scent of cedar-oil mingled with that of melting paraffin , he felt a 
profound satisfaction in the knowledge that he had been born into 
an extraordinary epoch which was witnessing a continuous revolu 
tion in the theories and practice of medicine. Within fifty years, 
Pasteur whom Fleming regarded as the ideal of what a scientist 
should be Behring, Roux and Wright had transformed the 
control and treatment of infectious diseases. With the coming of 
Ehrlich and salvarsan hope had dawned that chemotherapy might 
become a practical reality. What of the future? Only a small 
number of micro-organisms were killed by 606, All the others 
were still invincible. The solution of the problem of how they 
could best be attacked must, thought Fleming, be linked with the 
natural defences of the human body. The more one studied these 
tiny mechanisms, the more marvellous did they seem. 

But he was careful not to let himself be lured away into express 
ing general ideas. His job was to demonstrate facts without any 
additional padding. Being his own technician, he worked every 
hour of the day and had no time for talking. At the lab. his 
colleagues set their watches by the moment of his daily arrival. 
He valued a skilfully constructed piece of apparatus, a neat 5 
elaboration of a method, more highly than any theory. Wright s 
intelligence did not impress him: it was the man he loved. Deep 
down, Fleming was sensitive and affectionate, but his shyness made 
him brusque. Often of an evening in the laboratory a heated 
discussion would start, then lose direction and seep away into the 
sand. Flem would be there, listening attentively, but taking no 
part in the debate until, just as the arguments were becoming 

81 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

quite crazy, he would jerk all the great minds back to earth with a 
brief, quiet remark in which there was no hint of showing off 5 . 
Others overestimated the results of their experimental work. He, 
on the other hand, was inclined to underestimate his. Wright said 
to him one day: c You treat research like a game: you find it all 
great fun. 3 It was perfectly true. He liked having fun. In Freeman s 
house, where he had a consulting-room, he liked, whenever 
possible, to slip away and, with Mrs Freeman, play at pitching 
coins on to a small square of the drawing-room carpet. At the 
laboratory, his amusements were ingenious, practical and precise. 
In his childhood he had learned to use his eyes, and he never 
forgot anything he had seen. 



CHAPTER SIX 

THE WAR OF 1914-18 

The greatest derangement of the mind is to believe things because one wants 
to believe them and not because one has seen that they are. BOSSUET 

*A barrowful will do, to begin with.* 

*A barrowful of what? thought Alice. LEWIS CARROLL, Alice in Wonderland 

ONE day in 1912, young Dr James, paying a visit to St Mary s 
after the completion of his studies, saw a sturdy, bronzed 
soldier, in the field uniform of the London Scottish 
standing at the top of the steps. It was Fleming. He was just back 
from the annual camp and James was staggered to learn that a 
doctor of his quality, a learned bacteriologist, should be willing to 
go into training as a simple private. At that time 5 , says James, C I 
had no military experience. The idea of sharing a tent with six or 
seven other men filled me with horror ... I ventured to ask him 
how he managed to keep his equipment so spotless, his rifle and 
boots so clean in spite of the rain and mud. He gave me an icy-blue 
and rather terrifying look, and replied with his habitual brevity: 
"By bloody hard work! 59 

*My former meetings with Fleming had left me with a lively 
sense of admiration. Finding my hero transformed into a soldier 
gave me something to think about. I had been taught by my 
Nonconformist upbringing to think of war as a crime. I believed 
that no one went into the Army unless he had something to re 
proach himself with, and that all officers were more or less like 
the immoral Cavaliers who had taken up arms in the Civil War 
against the Puritans. The realization that one of my most highly 
esteemed seniors, with a remarkable record of work, was prepared 
to risk his life as a soldier of the King, made me revise my views 
about the possibility of a wax. 3 

Actually, war did not break out until two years later. Fleming 
had left the London Scottish in April 1914, because the training 
periods did not fit in with his work at the hospital. 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

A month or two after the beginning of the war Wright was given 
the rank of colonel and sent to France to establish a laboratory 
and research centre at Boulogne-sur-Mer. He took with him 
Douglas as a captain, Parry Morgan, and Fleming who sported 
the two stars of a lieutenant in the R.A.M.C. Colebrook joined 
them later. Freeman went first to Russia to prepare vaccines 
against the cholera and then proceeded to the laboratory at 
Boulogne. This was officially attached to the hospital established 
by the English Army in the Casino. To begin with, the bacteri 
ologists were accommodated in an appalling basement through 
which a drain-pipe ran, so that the whole place stank. Every 
morning at six o clock a sapper sergeant poured some cresol into 
the pipes, but the sickening stench persisted. 

Sir Almroth reacted in no uncertain manner (he could be most 
effectively brutal on occasion), and got the fencing-school on the 
top floor allotted to the research staff. Naturally it contained none 
of the equipment needed by a laboratory no benches, no 
running- water and no gas. The ingenious Fleming did yeoman 
service. Bunsen-burners were kept going on methylated spirit, 
and the incubators were heated with paraffin stoves. For such 
work as demanded the use of glass, he contrived a very effective 
blow-pipe out of rubber tubes and a pair of bellows mounted on a 
petrol-tin. He said, later, that he had never had a better laboratory. 

In war as in peace, nothing could disturb his habitual com 
posure. My first impression of Lieutenant Fleming , says his 
former orderly sergeant, was of a short, pale officer who never 
said more than he had to, but carried on calmly and efficiently 
with his work. When Captain Douglas went sick, Captain Fleming 
(he was promoted by that time) took over the command. Captain 
Douglas had always been chaffing and swearing when he talked 
to me about service matters. The first time I gave Captain Fleming 
some papers requiring his signature, he was busy with his micro 
scope. I waited respectfully until he could give me his attention. At 
last, he raised his head, took a pencil and, without asking me for a 
word of explanation, signed the vouchers. On such occasions as I 
had to make a report to him, I got the feeling that he wasn t 
interested, though he was much more than I thought. He took 
the whole thing in, solved the problem on the spot, and ended up 
with: "Right, Sergeant, carry on." * 

84 



THE WAR OF 1914-18 

Throughout the war the amount of work done by the Depart 
ment was tremendous and enormously beneficial. The question 
was no longer one merely of vaccines, though Wright (like Vincent 
in France) had fought tooth and nail to get anti-typhoid vaccination 
made compulsory in the Army. It saved thousands of lives, but 
the wounded brought other problems, most of them urgent and 
distressing. Wright and his assistants on their way to the laboratory 
had, every morning, to go through the wards, where they could 
see for themselves the terrible effects of explosives more powerful 
than those used in any previous war, and the infections set up in 
open wounds by earth and scraps of clothing. The surgeons 
despairingly drew the attention of the bacteriologists to innum 
erable cases of septicaemia, tetanus and, especially, gangrene. 
Every day convoys of wounded men arrived with splintered bones, 
torn muscles and severed blood-vessels. Within a very short space 
of time the patient s face would become ashen in colour, his pulse 
would weaken and his breathing diminish almost to nothing. 
This was the effect of gas-gangrene and meant certain death. 

How was it to be dealt with? In this war, said Sir Alfred Keogh, 
Head of the Army Medical Services, we have found ourselves 
back among the infections of the Middle Ages. Since the time of 
Lister, surgeons had got into the habit of relying on antiseptic and, 
especially, aseptic treatment. Except in certain cases of road- 
accidents, the wounds with which they had had to deal were 
reasonably clean, and they had learned how not to infect them. 
Lister had introduced the system of passing smocks, gloves and 
instruments through an antiseptic preparation. Later, everything 
which had to come in contact with the patient was first sterilized 
by heat. It looked as though hospital sickness had been con 
quered once and for all. But in the terrible. butchery of 1914, by 
the time the injured reached hospital, their wounds were already 
crawling with microbes. Any poor wretch who happened to have 
fallen in a field or on a road was bound to have picked up any 
number of deadly germs. Fleming, examining odds and ends of 
uniform, found in them microbes of every description. As to 
manure heaps, they were infested with germs. 

What was to be done? Fleming made a careful study of recently 
infected wounds, and noticed a remarkable fact. Phagocytosis was 
more active in them than in wound infections observed in ordinary 

85 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

civil practice. The leucocytes had devoured, and killed, an enor 
mous quantity of microbes. Why? c ln normal times/ he said, 
infections occur more or less spontaneously in individuals, who 
for some reason or other have become less resistant to the infecting 
agent. In civil practice also the bacteria have frequently an 
enhanced virulence, due to their passage from one individual to 
another. In war, on the contrary, a strong and healthy man when 
wounded finds himself suddenly and violently infected by microbes 
the virulence of which has been weakened as the result of living 
in unfavourable conditions. It is, therefore, only natural that 
phagocytosis should in these cases be greater. But why, then, in 
these conditions, should the infection in war-wounds be worse? 
Because the projectile has produced a very extensive destruction of 
tissues. Not only do dead tissues provide a good culture medium 
for microbes, they actually prevent the healthy phagocytes from 
reaching them. 5 His first piece of advice, therefore, to the surgeons 
was: remove all necrotic tissues as soon as possible. 1 

He had learned from his experience as a research- worker to have 
a solid respect for the natural defence-mechanisms of the human 
body. What happened in the case of a wound relieved of dead 
tissues and left to the processes of nature? The healthy leucocytes, 
penetrating the walls of the blood-vessels, attacked in strength, 
and cleansed the wound by absorbing the microbes. What was the 
cause of this c diapedesis , or migration, of the white corpuscles? 
To say that a "positive chemotaxis* attracted the phagocytes to 
the toxins, was merely to stress, once again, the soporific effect of 
opium. But, whatever the cause rnigh^ be, the effect was certain. 
What mattered, therefore, was to let the natural defences of the 
body have free access to the microbes. 

The army doctors were lacking in neither courage nor devotion, 
but they were now finding themselves face to face with a new 
problem. In the absence of adequate direction, they stuffed wounds 
with antiseptics, often chosen in a rather haphazard manner. That 
was strictly in accordance with the instruction which they and 
Fleming, too had received as students. *I remember , he said, 
that I used to be told to be most careful to use antiseptics in the 
dressing of wounds carbolic acid, boric acid, peroxide of 
hydrogen. I could see for myself that these antiseptics did not kill 

1 Alexander Fleming, Lancet* September i8th, 1915. 

86 



THE WAR OF 1914-18 

all the microbes, but was told that they killed some, and that the 
results were better than if no antiseptics had been used at all. At 
that time I was in no position to argue/ 

At Boulogne he could see that antiseptics were powerless, that 
microbes abounded, that the wounded were dying. Being nothing 
if not thorough, and suspicious of all a priori ideas, he devised a 
series of brilliant experiments for the purpose of bringing various 
antiseptic dilutions into contact with different forms of rnicrobial 
infection. These showed that not only did the antiseptics do 
nothing to prevent gangrene, they seemed actually to promote 
its development. 

Of course, in certain cases of superficial infection there was an 
advantage to be gained in using solutions sufficiently concentrated 
to destroy the bacilli. True, they also destroyed some of the cells of 
the body but, since this process took place on the surface, the 
surgeon could then remove the dead tissues. But cases of superficial 
infection were rare. Modern explosives produce deep wounds 
which are more than just simple cavities. Scraps of underclothing 
and other dirty objects, driven inwards by the explosion, penetrate 
deeply into the tissues. The injuries with which Fleming had to 
deal presented multiple anfractuosities, corners and crannies 
which might be compared to the configuration of the Norwegian 
fjords, and infection broke through the walls of these. Such anti 
septics as were then in use were powerless to get at the tissues. Was 
it possible to sterilize these ragged recesses? In order to find the 
answer to that question, he hit on the idea of modelling an artificial 
wound in glass. After first making the closed end of a test-tube 
red-hot, he drew out, on the inside, several hollow excrescences to 
represent the anfractuosities of the wound. Next, he filled the tube 
with a serum previously infected with faecal matter. The general 
result gave a diagrammatic, but sufficiently exact, picture of a 
war-wound. 

He then put the tube into an incubator and left it there for the 
night. Next morning the serum, invaded by microbes, had a 
muddy appearance and stank. The tube was then emptied of the 
serum and refilled with an antiseptic solution strong enough to 
kill the microbes. After certain intervals, not always the same, he 
emptied the tube and filled it again with non-infected serum. After 
incubation, this serum, which had begun by being sterile, was as 

87 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

muddy and stinking as the first. No matter how many times the 
operation was repeated, the result was the same. What did that 
prove? Obviously that, since the new serum had been originally 
free of contamination, microbes must still be lurking in the 
anfractuosities of the tube. From this he concluded that it was not 
possible to sterilize a war-wound with the then-known antiseptics. 

Once more the question arose, what was to be done? Wright s 
answer was leave the natural defences of the body to do their 
work, and help them. The leucocytes which flocked through the 
walls of the blood-vessels formed a pus the action of which was 
powerfully beneficial. Wright and Fleming had demonstrated by 
experiment that fresh pus destroys the colonies of microbes. To 
this bactericidal power of healthy leucocytes there is no limit, 
provided they are present in sufficient numbers. The best form of 
treatment, therefore, would be the one which would mobilize 
armies of leucocytes and cause the greatest possible quantity of 
fresh lymph to exude from the walls of the wound. Wright showed 
by laboratory tests that this action could be produced by using a 
high concentration of saline solution. Fleming confirmed these 
findings by experiments made on actual wounds. 

The same cause explains the jsuccesses obtained in the field by 
the French physiologist, Carrel, who introduced the system of 
washing out wounds with Dakin s solution (hypochlorite of soda) 
which, like the high concentration of saline solution, stimulated an 
intense exudation of fresh lymph. Fleming, knowing that anti 
septics rapidly lose their bactericidal properties when in contact 
with pus and tissues, wanted to see how long Dakin s solution 
remained active in a wound. He found that ten minutes after 
instillation, this antiseptic ceased to be dangerous to microbes. 
Yes/ was his conclusion, Dakin s solution gives good results, but, 
like the highly concentrated saline, only because it helps the natural 
defences. It s lucky , he added, with a touch of humour, c that it 
loses its antiseptic action so quickly. In ten minutes it can t do 
much damage, and, after that, nature has two hours rest in which 
to recuperate without being interrupted. 

Fleming s later discoveries have thrown his work during the 
war into the shade. But those qualified to judge (Dr Freeman, for 
instance) are of the opinion that he never conceived anything more 
perfect or more ingenious than those brilliant experiments by 

88 



THE WAR OF 1914-18 

which he demonstrated the danger to human tissues of antiseptics 
when wrongly used. 

Bernard Shaw, a frequent visitor to Boulogne, was cock-a-hoop. 
* We are left in the hands of doctors who, having heard of microbes 
much as St Thomas Aquinas heard of angels, suddenly concluded 
that the whole art of healing could be summed up in the formula: 
Find the microbe and kill it ... The simplest way to kill most 
microbes is to throw them into an open street or river and let the 
sun shine on them . . . But doctors instinctively avoid all facts that 
are reassuring, and eagerly swallow those that make it a marvel 
that anyone could possibly survive three days in an atmos 
phere consisting mainly of countless pathogenic germs.. They Con 
ceive microbes as immortal until slain by a germicide administered 
by a duly qualified medical man ... In the first frenzy of microbe- 
killing, surgical instruments were dipped in carbolic oil, which 
was a great improvement on not dipping them in anything at all 
and simply using them dirty; but as microbes are so fond of car 
bolic oil that they swarm in it, it was not a success from the 
anti- microbe point of view ... 3l Here Shaw did not understand, or 
pretended not to understand. The instruments were genuinely 
sterilized because in their case the strong concentrations were 
inoffensive. Lancets do not have vulnerable cells. 

But though Shaw may have been amused, the pundits were 
shocked. Wright who, with his customary quickness of mind and 
his passionate enthusiasm, had concentrated all his attention on 
this problem, the solution of which might save thousands of lives, 
increased the number of his lectures to English and French 
doctors. In 1915, he addressed the Royal Society of Medicine in 
London on two separate occasions- He did his best and this, for 
him, meant a great effort to keep his talks at a purely practical 
level, with his literary genius in abeyance. He did all he could not 
to be aggressive or ironical, his object being to convince without 
giving offence. In this he did not succeed. Self-satisfaction is so 
strong an emotion that it will deny the most obvious facts in the 
interest of a pride which is quick to take offence. The President of 
the Royal College of Surgeons, Sir William Watson Cheyne, who, 
having been a friend of Lister and spent his life in carbolic acid, 
was pleased to regard these new ideas on the surgical treatment of 

1 Bernard Shaw, Preface to The Doctor s Dilemma. Standard edition, 1932, pp. 21-2. 

89 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

war-wounds as amounting to an attack upon his own honour and 
that of his master quite wrongly, for Wright and Fleming had 
the greatest respect for Lister, but conditions were different. 
Consequently, Sir William thundered from the mountain-top of 
his authority. 

This was, to say the least, unwise, for Wright, when touched on 
the raw, could be a ferocious controversialist. On September i6th, 
1916, he published in the Lancet an admirably written reply which, 
in fact, amounted to a pamphlet. He lacked neither authority nor 
competence, since he and his assistants had had recent and exten 
sive experience of war- wounds. Sir William Watson Cheyne had 
admitted that, when infection had been active for ten or twelve 
hours, the chance of doing much good with antiseptics was very 
small. 

But 3 , replied Wright, in war, a wounded man who has been 
left for a long time on the battlefield, then slowly transported in 
an ambulance, can rarely receive attention within those limits of 
time which you appear to think necessary for successful treatment. 
And once the proper moment for the use of antiseptics has gone by, 
what is your programme? So far as I can make out, you haven t 
any. You say, in effect: "I have opened the wound, I have inserted 
a drain, I have washed the affected parts of the body with a weak 
antiseptic solutibn, and I am not prepared to give further thought 
to the problem. 55 

Tor my own part/ continued Wright (and here we are sum 
marizing his argument), *I take a diametrically opposite view. 
So far as the sterilization of war-wounds is concerned, I share with 
all those who have had the same experience in France as myself, 
the feeling that serious wounds inflicted in battle are never 
sterilized, and never can be, by the application of antiseptics. I have, 
therefore, strongly put forward the view that we must help the 
body, by physiological means, to combat bacterial infection. By 
stimulating a plentiful flow of lymph, we can aid the fluids in the 
blood to act upon the infected tissues. The more fresh serum we 
can produce, the more we can accelerate the migration of the 
leucocytes, the more we can assist in the destruction of the infec 
ting microbes . . . It seems to me that Sir William Watson Cheyne is 
blind to all these problems. He has not even caught a distant glimpse 
of the towers of that city in which we are seeking to arrive ... 

90 



THE WAR OF 1914-18 

He then produced overwhelming arguments to show that his 
illustrious opponent seemed to have not the remotest idea what 
an experiment was. Let us consider what the necessary qualifica 
tions for a practical scientist are ..,* Sir William had referred to a 
case of a gaping fracture sterilized by Lister. All that this passage 
in Sir William s text shows is that a muddled mind and deficient 
logic can draw false conclusions from a genuine clinical observa 
tion ... One of the objections put forward to Sir William s con 
tention had been that Sir Almroth Wright s physiological treat 
ment must be effective since so many doctors had been using it 
at the front for some considerable time. C I have nothing to do with 
the actions of men at the front/ Sir William foolishly replied, c to 
say nothing of the fact that a well-known piece of mechanism, 
known as discipline, operates in the field ...* In other words, since 
Wright was a colonel, his word must always be law in military 
circles. But so far was this from being true that Wright had asked 
the army surgeons, no matter what their rank, to think for 
themselves, and verify from their own experience the experiments 
carried out in the little laboratory at Boulogne, all of which were 
objective, simple and irrefutable. 

No doubt, though Wright was an individualist and boasted that 
he had never taken orders from anyone, he considered that in so 
grave, so tragic, a situation, it was impossible to let every regi 
mental medical officer go his own sweet way. In peace the 
practitioner works in a familiar and well-explored field. In war 
time, on the other hand, he finds himself having to deal with 
unfamiliar problems, and forced to take decisions on the spot. It 
is essential, therefore, that his seniors and advisers shall make 
available to him the results of experiments carried out by others. 
Thus, for instance, Wright was totally opposed to the immediate 
evacuation of the wounded to England . . . After an exhausting 
journey, he argued, they would be in no fit state to undergo 
operations which, carried out on the spot, would have a far better 
chance of being successful. We accumulate surgeons in France 
and wounded men in England ... It looks as though the problem, 
as set by the Army, is never to have the wolf, the lamb and the 
cabbage all together on the same side of the river ... It was a 
matter of regret to him that the medical administration of the 
armies in the field, excellent though it was in dealing with the 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

feeding and transportation of the wounded, seemed unable to 
shoulder the responsibility of solving such far more important 
problems as those affecting the improved treatment of the wounds 
themselves. 

He, for his part, went to infinite trouble to make generally 
known what he thought to be the truth. At Boulogne he delivered 
a lecture: On the Proper Methods of Judging Different Types of 
Treatment . Our task/ he said, c is to find the truth and to con 
vince others that it is the truth. The medical organization of our 
armies is such that it becomes necessary to persuade all the 
doctors who are working in the field. It is not enough to win over 
their superior officers because there can be no certainty that they 
will issue orders ... He was urgent in putting forward a suggestion 
that a "Medical Intelligence and Investigation Department should 
be set up at the War Office. Its duty would be to study all the 
problems arising out of war conditions, not only as they concerned 
wounds, but other matters as well, such as epidemic jaundice, 
trench-fever and the causes of nervous break-down among air- 
pilots. Its decisions would be accepted by all. Since he had many 
friends in the world of politics, he went in person to London to put 
his point of view to the Secretary of State for War, Lord Derby, 
and to Arthur Balfour. But the opposition of the high-ups in the 
Army Medical Service was violent. Sir Arthur Sloggett, the 
D.G.M.S., loudly denounced the scheme, said that Wright should 
stick to his laboratory work, and went so far as to demand his 
recall. He failed to get it, but Wright, too, failed to get what he 
wanted. 

Dr James, at that time a battalion M.O., visited the Boulogne 
Casino on his way back from leave. There he saw Fleming and 
Colebrook. His first reaction, when he compared the almost 
academic calm of the laboratory with the din of battle, the dirt, 
the stench and the nervous tension in the forward aid-posts, was 
one of faint irritation. These back-area doctors, he thought, have 
too easy a life! Wright lived in a charming house on the Boule 
vard Daunou, where Lucienne, an excellent French cook, looked 
after his comfort. But it was not long before he noticed how much 
thinner Fleming had grown and how worn-out he looked. In 
conversation with him, he soon realized that these same back-area 
doctors were working night and day, and that their only wish was 

92 



THE WAR OF 1914-18 

to do everything they could to help the fighting men. Fleming, 
more eloquent than usual, explained to him the experiments he 
was conducting and the very precise ideas he had formed about 
what was necessary if that great enemy of the wounded, infection, 
was to be overcome. What we are looking for/ he said, c is some 
chemical substance which can be injected without danger into the 
blood stream for the purpose of destroying the bacilli of infection, 
as salvarsan destroys the spirochaetes. 5 They had not yet found 
such a substance, but the team had already collected a number of 
very important facts. These enabled them to avoid the more fatal 
mistakes and to help the organism of the wounded man in its 
curative work. James took back with him to his battalion several 
new, precise and sound ideas on the treatment of wounds. 

There was no lack of visitors to the Casino. Bernard Shaw turned 
up on several occasions. Wright and he spent long nights in front 
of the fire discussing the relative importance of philosophy and 
medicine. One evening, when they were deep in argument, the 
chimney caught fire and the room was soon full of smoke. Lucienne 
and Freeman took turns in going into the street to see whether the 
roof was alight. Shaw and Wright, completely undisturbed, went 
on with their discussion. 

The famous American brain-specialist, Harvey Gushing, stayed 
for a while with Wright. Though the two men were very different 
in temperament, they liked each other enormously. Though 
Gushing, like Fleming, had a matter-of-fact mind, he was greatly 
entertained by Wright s passionate tirades on women, the 
Catholic Church and intellectual integrity. While the talk was 
going on, on one occasion, the fire died down. Wright got it going 
again with the help of a newspaper and, since he had theories 
about everything under the sun, explained that, to keep the paper 
from catching fire, one must always on the first sign of combustion 
make a hole with a poker in such parts of the paper as had turned 
black. Gushing, much amused by this fire-surgery, called the 
method Wright s Punctures . 

Gushing was Surgeon-in-Chief of the American Hospital pro 
vided by the University of Harvard, which had recently been 
transferred to Boulogne. Another Harvard professor, Roger Lee, 
was the Head Physician. He knew Wright by imputation because 
of anti-typhoid vaccination. (During the Spanish-American war, 

93 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

for every one man who died of wounds, a thousand succumbed to 
typhoid.) He had done some laboratory work on the opsonins and 
was delighted to learn that the famous Wright was under the same 
roof with him. He lost no time in paying him a visit and found 
him surrounded by Fleming, Freeman, Keith and Colebrook. I 
was at once attracted by Fleming/ he says, though he hardly 
spoke. The attraction was mutual and the two men remained 
lifelong friends. 

Among other visitors were Robert W. Bliss, the United States 
Ambassador in Paris, and several Frenchmen: Professor Pierre 
Duval, Jacques Calve and Dr Tuffier. Wright got along very well 
with the French, who shared his taste for general ideas. Freeman 
soon grew tired of Boulogne and went to work in Paris. On leaving, 
he said to Fleming: "You know, Flem, we two ought to be playing 
a more active part. A grunt was the only answer he got. Fleming 
was thinking that the research- work at Boulogne might well save 
the lives of innumerable wounded men. 

At the time of the First World War, the British had not, as had 
the French, the feeling that war is a quasi-religious ceremony, an 
act of sacrifice to be made with a becoming sense of gravity. They 
regarded it as a point of honour to relax occasionally, to seem to 
have time on their hands. A few miles behind the front the 
officers fished for trout and went sea-bathing. An eye-witness 
relates how one day Captain Fleming and another scientist C I 
rather think it was Wright himself feeling the need for exercise, 
had a wrestling-match. Just as both of them were rolling on the 
floor, the door opened to admit a delegation of high-ranking 
French army doctors. The wrestlers jumped to their feet and at 
once embarked upon a learned scientific discussion. But I shall 
never forget the expression on the faces of those French medical 
generals. 

Nothing could well have been less in accordance with army 
conventions than the life led by this little group of scientists in 
uniform. So careless was Wright of his appearance that his orderly 
sergeant, Clayden, insisted on putting him through a dress-parade 
every morning, so as to make sure that he had got his belt on 
properly, etc, One day , says Clayden, 1 noticed that the seat 
of his trousers was torn and that a piece of his shirt was showing. 
I didn t quite like to mention it, so I told Captain Fleming and 

94 



THE WAR OF 1914-18 

said that he really ought to draw the Colonel s attention to it. 
His reply was: "Do it yourself." So I went straight up to Sir 
Almroth, stood to attention, clicked my heels (which always 
earned me a mocking smile from the Colonel), and said, " There s a 
hole in the seat of your pants, sir." He looked at me. "That s a nice 
way to talk, Sergeant, I must say! I suppose you think the nurses 
will be shocked. Well, what do you suggest I should do about it?" 
"I think, sir, the best thing would be for you to send your driver 
back to your billet for another pair." "What a brain!" he said. 
Captain Fleming and I had a good chuckle, and then everyone 
settled down to work. 

On Sundays Fleming and two of his colleagues (Thomson, an 
Irishman from Belfast, and Dr Keith, a Canadian) used to play 
golf at Wimereux. The links were situated on the sand-dunes which 
Ue along the Channel coast. It meant a walk of a couple of miles 
or so northwards from Boulogne, but that didn t frighten the old 
foot-slogger of the London Scottish. Nevertheless, if an empty 
staff car happened to pass, the three musketeers would stop it. A 
somewhat self-important colonel regularly put in an appearance 
on the links. Fleming, a silent humorist, thought it great fun, 
when he was out of sight behind a dune, to drop the colonel s 
ball into the hole, and the colonel, thinking he had achieved the 
miraculous feat of holing out in one, was duly elated. 

Fleming was far from being a brilliant player. As always, he 
wanted to improvise a secondary game within the game proper. 
To vary the proceedings, he adopted a number of non-regulation 
methods. He would, for instance, lie on the ground and use a 
reversed putter as a billiard-cue, or turn his back to the hole, and 
putt between his legs. Sometimes the results were successful. The 
others accused him of cheating, but that didn t worry him. 

Keith, the Canadian, had become one of Fleming s great friends. 
He had done his medical studies at various American universities 
and, in the eyes of the English, he was a Tank. Fleming s practical 
mind was much to his taste, because it was so effective. We found 
this research group more than usually interesting, says Keith, 
because it kept in constant touch with the doctors and surgeons 
who looked after the wounded. The exchange of views which went 
on between them turned out to be useful and exciting. At tea- 
time, Boulogne being the great supply port for the B.E.F., there 

95 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

was always a crowd of guests, and the talk grew animated. Though 
Fleming said little, he did a great deal to keep the conversation at 
a practical level with his felicitous and opportune remarks. His 
views on the work done by the others, though penetrating, were 
always mixed with the milk of human kindness. His breadth of 
outlook reminded me of the best of our American research- 
workers, and it played a great part in the birth of our friendship. 



In 19 18, a special hospital (No. 8 Stationary) was established at 
Wimereux to deal with fractures of the femur involving deep 
laceration. It was decided that a special study should be made 
there of septicaemia and gas-gangrene. It was a proud moment 
for me% says Dr Porteous, c when I was sent to this hospital as a 
bacteriologist working under Fleming s orders. He was in charge 
of the laboratory, and we shared a hut. Our lab. was a wooden 
shed. The walls were covered with "pin-ups", pictures of phago 
cytes with, here and there, an illustration from La Vie Parisienne.* 
Fleming was still busy with his study of antiseptics and the saline 
treatment of wounds. He did a great deal of work on the septi 
caemias caused by streptococci and, with Porteous, tried to 
establish the conditions which would make this form of infection 
less frequent. He also practised transfusion, brought the method to 
a fine point, and published his results in the Lancet. Transfusion 
was not yet a familiar routine. The blood donors were volunteers, 
who were encouraged by the promise of extra leave. To keep 
himself physically fit, Fleming had laid out two golf-holes on a 
piece of grass behind the hut and the two friends played there at 
night, with candles in the holes, whenever wind and air-raids 
permitted. 

The great 1918 epidemic of Spanish flu kept the doctors hard 
at it night and day. The unexpected rate at which the sufferers 
were dying was heartbreaking. The orderlies themselves went sick 
with it. Quite often Fleming and Porteous themselves had to carry 
corpses to the improvised cemetery. Gas-gangrene was still raging 
and the stench was appalling, flies became a positive scourge, until 
Fleming devised a method of c bririging them down by spraying 
them with xylene out of a syringe. He studied the Pfeiffer bacillus 
which was said to be causing this notorious form of flu. To be sure, 

96 



Captain Fleming in 
the laboratory at 
Boulogne 



Tears embedded in 
the form of a T in 
agar which was then 
flooded with a coc 
cus. There is no 
growth of the coccus 
for some distance 
from the tears 






Lady (Sareen) Fleming, 
(d. 1949) and Robert 



One of Sir Alexander s own 
paintings, done at Barton 
Mills 



THE WAR OF 1914-18 

it was found in ninety per cent of those suffering from it, though 
in general this particular bacillus is not regarded as being very 
dangerous. Fleming wondered why it should suddenly have 
produced this deadly epidemic. He attempted to grapple with the 
problem and discovered that there were several variants of the 
Pfeiffer bacillus and that it was not always the same but one or 
other of those variants which was found in people suffering from 
Spanish flu. He concluded, therefore, that the illness was caused 
by some agent other than the Pfeiffer bacillus which, in itself, was 
only the germ of a secondary infection. He was right, but that did 
not do much to help the sufferers. 

*The picture I have of him , says his sergeant, is that of a short 
R.A.M.C. officer carrying a tray loaded with pipettes, Plasticine, 
platinum wire and a spirit lamp, standing on a cold winter s 
morning, with ice anft snow everywhere, in a tent heated by a 
brazier, with me carrying out an autopsy on a table, while on 
another table another corpse lay awaiting its turn! We had six 
autopsies to do that morning! It was Christmas Day and from 
each of the bodies Captain Fleming took specimens/ 

In spite of all their efforts, the hospital doctors never succeeded 
in protecting the wounded from gas-gangrene. Fleming was in 
despair. Surrounded by all those infected wounds/ he wrote, c by 
men who were suffering and dying without our being able to do 
anything to help them, I was consumed by a desire to discover, 
after all this struggling and waiting, something which would kill 
those microbes, something like salvarsan ... In this way he was 
driven back again on to the problem with which he had been 
obsessed when he wrote his thesis on c How to Overcome Infectious 
Diseases . But by this time Foch, in a sequence of unexpected 
blows, had shattered the enemy front. The war .ended in November 
1918. In January 1919 Fleming was demobilized. 



97 



CHAPTER SEVEN 

CHILDREN AND MEN 

Children attracted him by their natural enjoyment of simple pleasures. In the 
same way he had a great love of nature, birds, flowers and, of course, trees, 
and knew a great deal about them. PROFESSOR CRUICKSHANK 

ON December 23rd, 1915, while on leave, Fleming had got 
married. When he returned to Boulogne and, after a while, 
started talking of my wife 3 , his friends at first refused to take 
him seriously. They could not imagine him as a married man. 
They insisted on seeing a photograph of Mrs Flem. He had one 
sent. But by scientific minds this proof was not accepted as 
sufficient, and they had to wait until the war was over before 
coming to terms with so surprising an idea. But he really and truly 
had married Sarah Marion McElroy, a trained ^urse who ran a 
private nursing home in York Place, Baker Street. She was its 
proprietor, and numbered among her clientele several aristocratic 
patients who, having once had experience of her establishment, 
would go nowhere else when they were ill. 

Sarah, generally known as Sareen , was born at Killala, Ballin, 
County Mayo, Ireland, Her father, Bernard McElroy, owned one 
of the largest farms in the neighbourhood. He was an admirable 
man, mad about sports, and very much under the influence of his 
wife who ruled both farm and family. There were many children 
of the marriage, including twins Elizabeth and Sarah. Four of 
the daughters had been trained as nurses. Sarah started her 
hospital career in Dublin, In the house of the celebrated surgeon 
Sir Thornby Stoker, for whom she worked, she met many famous 
writers George Moore, W. B. Yeats, Arthur Symons and others. 
But she took very little interest in literature and none at all in men 
of letters. What she loved was her profession and an active life. 

At the time when Fleming first met her, Sareen was a white- 
skinned blonde, with pink cheeks, grey-blue eyes Irish eyes 
and an expressive face. Her charm lay in her extraordinary vitality, 
her manifest kindness, her gaiety and the self-confidence which 



CHILDREN AND MEN 

accounted for her success. She was drawn to the young Scottish 
doctor who was so serious, silent and temperate in fact, the very 
opposite of herself in all respects. It was to her credit that she had 
divined beneath the outward show of modesty and reserve a 
hidden genius which at once won her respect. Alec is a great man/ 
she said, but nobody knows it. 

It seems probable that she had had to give him a good deal of 
encouragement before he could bring himself to propose. She 
long remembered his shyness. He was incapable of expressing his 
feelings, and never ceased to be surprised that people found it so 
difficult to understand what he meant. Much later, when she 
was seriously ill and felt that she was dying, one of her women 
friends said to her: You mtistn t die. What would your husband do 
without you? OhP she replied, he ll marry again/ and then 
added with a smile,*but whoever it is, she ll have to do the 
proposing! The fact remains that she always knew how to pierce 
the armour of silence which protected the sensibility of the strange 
young man, and loved the beautiful blue eyes which held, deep 
down, a flicker^of impish kindliness. 

She was Irish and, therefore, a Catholic. But he never showed 
the faintest sign of aggressiveness in the matter of her religion. He 
was more than tolerant, and went so far as to say to a woman 
friend: Why don t you take Sareen to Mass? He thought that 
Catholic education was excellent, especially for young girls. It is 
an admirable thing for them to have a convent training/ he said, 
it s good for their morals. 

Sareen s twin sister, Elizabeth, the widow of an Australian, not 
long afterwards married Alec s brother, John, who was as brilliant, 
gay and loquacious as Alec and Bob were silent. There were not 
many points of resemblance between the two women. Sareen was 
strikingly exuberant, Elizabeth calm and rather sad. Sarah, 
impetuous and a born fighter, argued in the Irish manner the 
manner of Shaw and Wright with a hearty contempt for her 
adversary. Fleming, for his part, showed neither displeasure nor 
anger. Like so many Scots, he had to be known through and 
through before one could be certain whether he was annoyed or 
pleased. His motto seemed to be: Anything for a Quiet Life , and 
he really was prepared to sacrifice a great deal so long as he was 
left in peace to get on with his work. 

99 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

For this work Sareen had a deep respect, and helped it by 
bringing to her husband a degree of freedom from money worries. 
She sold her nursing home, and made Alec promise to give up 
practising so that he could give all his time to research. This 
showed great unselfishness on her part, for, since their means were 
slender, it meant that she would have to do without servants and 
undertake all the household chores. She also condemned herself 
to seeing very little of her husband, who spent all his evenings at 
the laboratory. She had to be resigned to leading a fairly solitary 
existence, and going to the theatre either alone or with friends. 

Those of her husband had at once adopted her. In the course of 
the several visits he had paid to the Pegrams cottage in Suffolk, 
Fleming had become greatly attached to that lovely county. His 
wife and he used part of the money which came to them from the 
sale of the nursing home in buying a country house, The Dhoon , 
at Barton Mills, a charming village adjoining the one in which the 
Pegrams lived. The house was old, with a gravel drive lined by 
shrubs leading to an attractive glazed front door, flanked by 
stone seats. It carried with it a fair amount of land and a stretch of 
river which was reached by a rustic bridge leading to an island. 
There was good rough fishing pike, perch and gudgeon 
and Alec, being a keen observer, soon got to know the habits and 
hiding-places of the pike. 

He and Sareen between them transformed the meadow and 
orchard round the house into a well-designed garden which 
eventually showed a fine profusion of flowers. Clearing the ground 
took several years, but they both had green fingers 3 . They 
established a large kitchen-garden, two greenhouses, a vine, and 
peaches which they trained against a wall. On the river-bank they 
built a boat-house in which they kept a punt. 

Dr and Mrs Fleming spent their Week-ends and holidays at 
The Dhoon. On March I7th, 1924, Sareen gave birth to a son, 
Robert. It was then that she adopted the habit of settling into 
The Dhoon during the summer months with her small boy and 
several nephews. Fleming was left on his own in London, but went 
into Suffolk every week-end and for the whole of August. He 
adored his child and would often get up in the middle of the night 
and tip-toe across to make sure that he was well covered up and 
was sleeping quietly, just as, so many years before, his mother had 

100 



CHILDREN AND MEN 

done with him in the moorland farm. Later on, he gave up golf 
entirely in order to play with Robert. Children attracted him 
because they had his own precious gift of finding happiness in 
simple things. He had a tremendous love of nature of birds, 
flowers and trees and tasted once again in his country home 
some of the pleasures of his childhood. 

He took a never-failing delight in fishing, swimming and, more 
than anything else, in gardening. He had an original taste in 
flowers, his favourites being the giant dahlias and love-lies-bleed 
ing . He liked sowing or planting out in those months of the year 
which were net advised by the experts, just in order to prove that 
the experts were wrong. C A gardener must never be impatient/ he 
said. Tlowers grow in their own time and one does more harm 
than good if one tries to hasten the process. One can protect them 
against the weather: one can see that they get food and drink, but 
it is only too easy to kill them when either is too strong or too plen 
tiful. They are responsive to kindness, but they can also withstand 
any amount of hard treatment. In other words, they are like 
human beings. 5 This heretical gardener had some astonishing 
successes. c He just went up to some improbable tree when it was 
in full leaf, wrenched off a branch, stuck it in the ground, and lo 
and behold, it produced roots! says Marjory Pegram. 

His wife turned out to be no less ingenious and freakish than he 
was. He spoke with admiration of everything she did: her cooking; 
the things she bought; the things she planted. They loved and 
respected one another, and both had a taste for old and beautiful 
objects. They hunted the local antique shops for furniture. The 
most affable of hosts, they had friends to stay each week-end. 
Sareen coped with everything. Her energy was well-nigh mira 
culous. She mowed the lawn, did the weeding, planted the 
flowers, polished the furniture, cooked the meals. c She does all the 
work, said Alec with a laugh, and provides all the conversation. 

Sareen maintained that that was why they got on so well 
together. He never answered questions and nothing could make 
him lose his temper. Their visitors found this traditional confronta 
tion of Scotch and Irish endlessly amusing. The river, and a golf- 
links not far away, provided additional entertainment. In the 
evenings they played croquet and putted on the lawn, and when it 
grew dark, continued the game by candle-light, as Fleming had 

101 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

learned to do in the old Wimereux days. But he was never satis 
fied with ordinary croquet. Keen, as he always was, to contrive a 
game within a game, he was for ever making new rules which he 
observed with an almost religious scrupulousness. Staying at 
The Dhoon was always great fun. 

As husband and as father he was still his old imperturbable self. 
*I never knew him to be put out , says Dr Gerald Willcox. One 
day, at The Dhoon, he took me out fishing in a boat with his 
small son. All of a sudden he hooked a pike. The boy, mad with 
excitement, jumped up, and fell into the river. Fleming remained 
seated, his attention divided between the pike, which was fighting 
like a mad thing, and me, for I was trying to fish the child out of 
the water; but not for a moment did he let go of his rod ... 
Another evening, when there was a fireworks display in the garden, 
one of his friends, wishing to test his host s legendary impassivity, 
let off a rocket between his legs. Fleming never turned a hair, 
but simply said, quite calmly: Squib gone off/ 

Sareen organized children s parties. Her husband took charge of 
the games and thoroughly enjoyed himself. He frequently arranged 
competitions, for which he offered prizes, and always knew what 
the young people would most like, because he had remained one 
of them. He certainly felt as happy with them as with grown-ups. 
Short though his holidays were, he devoted several days every year 
to running a garden fete for the village. The marvellous times 
that were had in his garden are still talked about at Barton Mills. 

In London he had taken a lease of another charming house in 
Danvers Street, in the very heart of Chelsea, with which part of 
the Town and himself the Arts Club already formed a bond. 
There he entertained several artists who lived in the neighbour 
hood. Sareen was completely at her ease with them. She had a 
passion for youth and liked to be surrounded by pretty young 
women. Not only was she completely without jealousy : she enjoyed 
looking at them as she enjoyed looking at the beautiful objects for 
which she had developed a taste. Fleming did more listening than 
talking, but never gave the impression that he was bored. On the 
contrary, he greedily absorbed everything that was said, took an 
amused enjoyment in it, and hoarded it in his memory. But he had 
a horror of dirty stories and never laughed at them. If somebody 
embarked on one, he would sit with his eyes shut until it was over, 

IO2 



CHILDREN AND MEN 

On all other occasions, he overflowed with innocent gaiety. Even 
in London he found pleasure in games. He had a special liking 
for spillikins at which his perfect control of his hands, which never 
trembled, usually gave him the victory. 

The Belgian professor, Gratia, tells how he once spent an 
evening in Chelsea and was present when Fleming interrupted the 
conversation of several extremely eminent bacteriologists in order 
to organize, with absolute seriousness, a game of shove-ha penny. 
e l have known people who used to get annoyed at this pleasing 
display of childishness, he writes, but should one not rather regard 
it as an expression of the strength of character of a people who can 
shoulder the most formidable responsibilities with a smile, and 
relapse wholeheartedly into foolery with an appearance of im 
perturbable gravity? 

Sareen was far from having luxurious tastes, but she loved 
embroideries, china and old glass, which she collected with the 
complete approval of her husband. She was not particularly 
interested in clothes, except when it came to dressing up 3 , and 
was only too delighted when she could make a wrap out of an 
old evening dress. She trimmed her own hats and exhibited them 
proudly to her women friends, pointing out how silly it was to 
spend money on such things. Those who did not know her well, 
occasionally, in the early days of their acquaintance, showed some 
surprise at her abrupt manners, which were those of a woman 
accustomed to command. But they very soon came to realize that 
behind the outward appearances lay a fund of warm feeling and 
affection. Though she was a careful housewife, she was very 
generous not only to her friends, nephews and nieces, but also to 
those whom she employed. In short, the couple was no less liked 
in Chelsea than at Barton Mills, and Fleming s private life was 
happy and uneventful. 

The same could not be said of his professional career. In 1921, 
Wright had made him Assistant Director of the Department. 
Freeman, who was his senior in age, was deeply affronted- Had 
not Wright always called him his son in science and said that the 
succession should fall on him? He later realized that Wright 
moved in a mysterious way . You never knew when the Old Man 
would be up to his tricks. But, at the time, Freeman believed in 
perfect good faith that the appointment had been engineered by 

103 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Fleming, who, in fact, had been very much distressed by the 
whole business. The peace of the lab. was put in jeopardy. 
Freeman, in order to get away from the team, devoted all his 
time to the Allergy Service, of which he was now undisputed head 
since the death of Leonard Noon. He did some remarkable work 
there, especially on the pollens. 

Cliques began to form. Personal passions had torn a breach in 
what once had been a united scientific family. Fleming s position 
as Wright s deputy became difficult. He could not endure quarrels, 
nor could he understand them. The Old Man, who had handed 
over to him the whole administrative side of the Department, 
would occasionally, as a result of prodding from one or other of 
his favourites, interfere and flagrantly reverse instructions issued 
by Fleming. In silence, the latter did everything he could to 
conciliate opposing groups, so as to avoid irritating his master, 
and to do and say nothing that might brush his colleagues 
up the wrong way. He tried to let his promotion sink into 
oblivion. Modest, efficient, but fully conscious of his duties, he 
saw to it that the Department should function properly, and also 
because of a deeply felt and compelling need that justice should 
be done. In the interests of a cause which he believed to be good, 
he was prepared, when necessary, to face the Old Man s anger. 
Those whom he protected never knew that he had done so, unless 
accidentally. 

Dr Dyson gives a good example of this. He had had reason to 
think that Wright had treated him in an arbitrary and unfair 
manner. He complained to Fleming. C I had hoped that he would 
say: "You are perfectly right, Dyson, and I will support you tooth 
and nail" * ... But not a bit of it. He listened without saying a 
word and Dyson went away feeling intensely annoyed. It was only 
many years later that he learned that Fleming had on that occasion 
conducted his defence with the utmost vigour, though without 
saying a word to anyone about what he had done. 

Fleming was now installed in a tiny laboratory near the stair 
case. From the window he could see a pub, the Fountains Abbey, 
and a street, Praed Street, with its clutter of junk-shops. Dr Todd, 
a brilliant hand at research and a tremendous worker, shared 
it with him. It was not long before a newcomer, Allison, joined 
them. In their company Fleming could forget all about quarrels 

104 



CHILDREN AND MEN 

and devote himself to his favourite game research. From time 
to time the cliques would provoke storms, some of them big, others 
trivial. To all of them Fleming presented a front of passive resis 
tance. The loyal secretary of the Service, Craxton, still remem 
bers the anguished astonishment with which he once said to him: 
Craxton, why must people be so difficult? 9 But the mood would 
pass and he would turn again to his work. Allison often used to 
hear him humming a song. It was always the same song. C I don t 
remember the exact words, but it was about a "dicky-bird" who 
was quietly sitting on its nest when a hawk swooped down and 
tore it to pieces. No doubt his liking for this melancholy ditty arose 
from the fact that he saw himself as a quiet little bird continually 
menaced by more than one hawk. But there was no bitterness in 
him. The song was his way of laughing at himself, and quickly 
made him forget his troubles. 

During the war, St Mary s had for the first time admitted women 
students. They had helped to keep the Medical School going in 
the absence of the men, but when the war was over, their continued 
presence led to storms. One group of male students demanded 
their removal. Some of the doctors thought that this would be 
unfair, and put their names to a counter-petition. One of them, a 
man named Fry, had been taken on at the lab. on Fleming s 
recommendation, and he felt responsible for him. 

You are making a great mistake, Fry. The Old Man will never 
forgive you. He hates women students. 5 

I don t think he ll take it too hard. But whether he does or he 
doesn t, my signature stands. 

Fleming s prudence appeared to be excessive. Wright bore 
no grudge against the heretic. He was delighted to have such 
a chance of letting himself go and getting a lot of fun at Fry s 
expense. 

The Medical School could no longer carry on without a con 
siderable subsidy from London University. The buildings were in 
a bad state of repair and the professors were so badly paid that 
they could not afford to give much of their time to teaching. By 
great good fortune, a new and energetic dean, Dr Wilson (later, 
Lord Moran) was elected. But he had a difficult battle to fight. 
When the members of the Universities Commission turned up at 
St Mary s, all went well until they reached the Pathology and 

105 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Research Department. 1 There the ironical Wright told them a 
few home truths and they took to their heels in terror. 

Meanwhile, the brilliant and persuasive dean had managed to 
convince a few powerful individuals that the training of doctors 
was becoming a problem of national urgency. One of his friends, 
Lord Revelstoke, the chairman of Baring Brothers, gave him 
twenty-five thousand pounds to be spent on St Mary s Medical 
School. Another of his friends, and a patient of his, Lord Beaver- 
brook, visited the hospital incognito to draw his own conclusions. 
He visited the Out-Patients Department and then went into 
the small canteen reserved for those awaiting attention. 

How much does a bun cost? he asked. The answer was: Three 
ha pence, but if that is more than you can afford, you can have 
it for nothing/ 

This must have pleased Lord Beaverbrook, for some days later 
he asked Dr Wilson to come and see him. 

*I know, he said, that you are thinking of rebuilding your 
School. How much do you need? 

Sixty-three thousand pounds.* 

Lord Beaverbrook immediately opened a credit for that amount 
in Wilson s name. 



While waiting for the reconstruction to be completed, the dean 
proceeded to reform the method of recruiting students, Among 
Fleming s papers there is the following note: St Mary s. Went 
through a bad time in the twenties. Students then recruited by 
examination. Only thing required, being clever with exam, papers. 
The School did not shine either from the quality of its students or 
from that of its work. Then new dean established system of 
scholarships on principle of Rhodes Foundation. We got number 
of good athletes, and School improved/ Dr Wilson thought that 
the choosing of students recommended by their headmasters and 
then interviewed by himself was a better system than examination 
for collecting a body of men of high quality. In this way , writes 
Zachary Cope, the School got a regular flow of students of good 
intelligence, exceptional character and proficiency at games/ 
This was fully in accordance with Fleming s doctrine. 

1 The new name of the Inoculation Department. 
1 06 



CHILDREN AND MEN 

At the laboratory life gradually recovered its pre-war rhythm. 
There was not very much measuring of the opsonic index now. 
Wright was out of patience with that method and condemned it 
with a vigour as excessive as his former enthusiasm had been. 
Such prejudiced judgments were the price that had to be paid for 
his genius. He was still interested in metaphysical problems. c ln 
all my life, he said, C I have suffered from only two ailments, 
nettle-rash and philosophic doubt. The second is the worse of 
the two. He believed more strongly than do most men with a 
scientific outlook in the possibility of reaching the truth by the use 
of logic and pure reason. His intellectual approach was not that 
of an Englishman. He inspired personal affection in all who knew 
him, but unquestioning confidence only in a few. Not many young 
foreign doctors now visited his Department. 

With Fleming and Colebrook he continued, long after the war 
was over, his private campaign against antiseptics. In 1919 
Fleming was chosen to give the Hunterian Lecture , a solemn 
oration delivered every year in memory of the great surgeon, 
Hunter. He chose as his subject: The Action of Physical and 
Physiological Antiseptics upon a Septic Wound , and treated it in 
a masterly fashion. There were, he said, c during the war, two 
schools of thought about the treatment of wounds: the one, 
physiological, which concentrated on the body s natural agents 
of protection; the other, antiseptic, the object of which was to kill 
the microbes in the wound by means of a chemical agent .., He 
explained once again why Sir Almroth Wright and his disciples 
belonged to the first of these schools. 

Why? Because experience had shown that antiseptics, excellent 
though they might be for preventing infection, were powerless to 
suppress it once it was established. This he had often demonstrated, 
but he now added that, even if antiseptics had been inoffensive 
(which was not the case) they would still have constituted a 
psychological danger. c lt is very difficult for the surgeon not to be 
deluded into the belief that he has, in the antiseptic, a second string 
to his bow, and, consequently, it will tend to make him less careful 
in his surgical treatment of the wound. If he knows that he has 
nothing to fall back on, then, even with the most conscientious 
individuals, the surgery will improve. Because of this alone, it 
would be well if the treatment of the wound with antiseptics in the 

107 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

early stage were abandoned and the surgeon left to rely on his skill 
alone. All the great successes of primary wound treatment have 
been "due to efficient surgery, and it seems a pity that the surgeon 
should wish to share his glory with a chemical antiseptic of more 
than doubtful utility. 1 

But, even though he did belong, with his master, to the physio 
logical school, no one knew better that infection often overcomes 
the natural defences, that the surgeon is sometimes powerless. 
Like Ehrlich and many others, he would dearly have liked to find 
the c magic bullet something which should be as fatal in its 
effects upon the invaders as it was inoffensive to the cells of the 
human body. 

1 The British Journal of Surgery, 1919. 



108 



CHAPTER EIGHT 

FIRST HOPE: THE LYSOZYME 

... sometimes a man whose intelligence is arrested by things which do not 
strike others, who, knowing how to use his eyes, looks hard at what the others 
do not see. LERIGHE 

Never neglect any appearance or any happening which seems to be out of 
the ordinary: more often than not it is a false alarm, but it may be an 
important truth. FLEMING 

YN 1922 , writes Dr Allison, I went to St Mary s to work in 
I the Inoculation Department with Fleming. From the very 
JL first he started to pull my leg about my excessive tidiness. 
Each evening I put my "bench" in order and threw away anything 
I had no further use for. Fleming told me that I was a great 
deal too careful. He, for his part, kept his cultures sometimes for 
two or three weeks and, before finally getting rid of them, 
looked very carefully to see whether by chance any unexpected or 
interesting phenomenon had appeared. The sequel was to prove 
how right he was and that, if he had been as neat as I am, he 
would probably have found out nothing new. 

About a month or two after I had started working with him, 
he was busy one evening cleaning up several Petri dishes which 
had been lying on the bench for perhaps ten days or a fortnight. 
As he took up one of the dishes in his hand, he looked at it for a 
long time, showed it to me, and said: "This is interesting." I had a 
good look at it. It was covered with large yellow colonies which 
appeared to me to be obvious contaminants. But the remarkable 
fact was that there was a wide area in which there were no organ 
isms; and another, farther on, in which the organisms had become 
translucent and glassy. Beyond that, again, were organisms which 
were in a transitional stage of degradation, between the very 
glassy ones and those which were fully developed with their 
normal pigment. 

Fleming explained that this particular dish was one to which 
he had added a little of his own nasal mucus, when he had 

109 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

happened to have a cold. This mucus was in the middle of the zone 
containing no colony. The idea at once occurred to him that there 
must be something in the mucus which dissolved or killed the 
microbes in its immediate neighbourhood, and then became 
diffused in such a way that it progressively contaminated the 
already developed colonies. "Now, that really is interesting," he 
said again. "We must go into it more thoroughly." His first care 
was to pick off the organism and to stain it by gram. He found it 
was a large gram-positive coccus, not a pathogen, and not one of 
the known saprophytic organisms commonly met with, but 
obviously a contaminating organism which was more likely to 
have been in the atmosphere of the laboratory and may, of 
course, have blown in through the window, from the dust and 
air of Praed Street. 

The next step in the investigation was to try again the use of 
nasal mucus, and he tested some for its effect on this large gram- 
positive coccus, not on a plate but in a tube. He made a culture of 
the organism in broth and added nasal mucus to it. To his great 
surprise and mine, the opaque suspension of organisms became, 
in the space of a few minutes, completely clear "clear as gin/* 
he said at the time. Immediately afterwards, and in the same 
conditions, he tried the effect of tears. A single drop of tear-fluid 
dissolved the organisms in probably less than five seconds. It was 
astonishing and thrilling. 

Tor the next five weeks, my tears and his were our main supply 
of material for experiment. Many were the lemons we had to buy 
to produce all those tears! We used to cut a small piece of lemon- 
peel and squeeze it into our eyes, looking into the mirror of the 
microscope. Then, with a Pasteur pipette, the point of which had 
been rounded in a flame, we collected the tears which we pro 
ceeded to put into a test-tube. In this way I often collected as much 
as }-| c.c. of tears for our experiments/ 

Visitors, men and women alike, were put under contribution in 
this matter of tears. The St Mary s Hospital Gazette published a 
drawing which depicted children coming, for a few pennies, to the 
laboratory, where one attendant was administering a beating, 
while another collected their tears in a receptacle on which was 
written the word Antiseptics . Even the laboratory attendants 
were condemned to undergo the ordeal by lemon , but they got 

no 



FIRST HOPE: THE LYSOZYME 

threepence each time. They kept regular accounts and were paid 
for all their tears at the end of the month. Once, when Fleming 
noticed that the eyes of one of these men were very red, he 
remarked: If you cry often enough, you ll soon be able to 
retire! 5 

These experiments had proved that tears contain some sub 
stance which can dissolve certain microbes with surprising speed. 
It was possessed , said Fleming, *of extraordinary power. Up till 
then I used to wonder at the much slower action of the antiserum 
which, when added to an infected broth warmed in an incubator 
or in the water bath, takes some considerable time to dissolve the 
microbes, and then only incompletely. But when I studied this new 
substance, I put into a test-tube a thick, milky suspension of 
bacteria, added a drop of tear, and held the tube for a few seconds 
in the palm of my hand. The contents became perfectly clear. I 
had never seen anything like it. 

The phenomenon was indeed very impressive, and Fleming was 
the first person to observe it. The double piece of luck had been 
miraculous, for the mysterious substance had been brought in 
contact with the one microbe which was most sensitive to its action. 
All the same, though its power of dissolving (and so, killing) had 
been demonstrated in a more spectacular fashion in the case of the 
yellow "coccus , which was inoffensive, the substance also dissolved, 
though more feebly, other microbes, some of which were patho 
genic. In a series of experiments, Fleming showed that it had the 
properties of an enzyme (natural ferment). 

What should this substance be called? As usual, the question 
was debated in the library, round the tea-table. Wright, as we 
have seen, delighted in constructing words from Greek roots. Since 
the new substance was a species of enzyme, its name must end 
with the syllable zyme ; and since it dissolved, or lysed*, certain 
microbes, it was agreed to given it the name of lysozyme . As to 
the microbe so easily c lysed , Wright named it micrococcus lyso- 
deikticus* from lysis (dissolution) and deixeirf (to show) : in 
other words the organism which makes it possible to show, or 
note, a power to dissolve. 

Fleming continued tenaciously with his investigation of the 
lysozyme. Since he had made the initial discovery, an idea had 
been taking form in his mind and becoming more and more 

in 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

insistent. How did it happen that a natural secretion of the body 
should possess such great strength as a bactericide? Obviously 
because it had a protective effect on exposed surfaces. This was a 
necessary provision of nature since, did it not exist, the human 
species would have died out long ago, or would never have de 
veloped at all, seeing that, from the moment of birth, human 
bodies are in contact with the innumerable germs which air, earth 
and water contain. At every moment of our lives microbes are 
being deposited on the surface of the skin, and are penetrating 
into the nose, the mouth and the alimentary canal. Many of 
these microbes are harmless, some are even useful and, for example, 
facilitate digestion. The organism tolerates them, but resists any 
attempt they may make to get beyond the mucous membrane or to 
multiply too rapidly. 

The blood and its army of phagocytes provide one part of this 
system of natural defences. But there are certain sensitive and 
fragile areas, such as the conjunctiva of the eye, the membrane of 
the nose, and the mucous membrane of the respiratory channels, 
which are exposed to airborne microbes, and do not have the 
advantage of an abundant blood-flow. These parts of the body 
cannot be left without protection. It looked as though lysozyme 
might be one of the body s natural defences and, if the hypothesis 
could be verified, it seemed probable that this substance, or other 
substances of the same type, would be found distributed all over 
any animal body whether of a man, a bird or a fish and that 
this peculiarity would be present, too, in the vegetable world. 

Fleming, therefore, organized a series of experiments with the 
object of showing that lysozyme would be found in other secretions 
and even in tissues. He discovered that a nail-paring, a scrap of 
skin, a drop of saliva or a few hairs, when introduced into a test- 
tube, exercised the same miraculous solvent action. He got into 
the habit, when speaking to his students about natural defences, 
of asking them to take a cutting from the edge of one of their 
finger-nails and place it in a microbial suspension. The instanta 
neous effect amazed them especially as they had recently come 
from the hands of a physiologist who had taught them that finger 
nails consist of inert tissue. 3 Meanwhile, as he went on with the 
researches, he was finding more and more lysozyme everywhere: 
111 the secretions of the buccal mucus; in the sperm of all animals; 

112 



FIRST HOPE: THE LYSOZYME 

in the spawn of the pike; in a woman s milk; in the tip of a 
stalk; in leaves. 

All the growing things in the garden were tested. Tulips and 
buttercups, nettles and peonies, were found to contain lyso- 
zyme. The turnip had an unusually large amount. But the richest 
store was egg-white. Fleming demonstrated that egg-white, when 
diluted in sixty million times as much water, was still capable of 
dissolving some microbes. The egg, therefore, possesses consider 
able power as a bactericide, and it needs to, for the white, and even 
the yolk, of an egg provide a marvellous culture medium for 
microbes. The shell of an egg is not impervious to them: conse 
quently, if eggs can remain sterile for several days in a dairyman s 
shop-window, where they are exposed to the attack of every kind 
of germ, the reason must be that they have some form of natural 
protection. c lt looks, said Fleming to his colleague, Ridley, *as 
though the surfaces most exposed to infection are also the best 
protected. For instance, the slime secreted by an earth-worm is a 
highly potent bactericide. He found lysozyme in the blood, 
especially inside the leucocytes and in the fibrin of clots. Would 
not this be, he asked, *a protective mechanism for open wounds, 
which rapidly become covered with a layer of fibrin and leuco 
cytes, both of which are rich in lysozyme? 

Yes, lysozyme really did seem to be the body s natural anti 
septic, the cells first line of defence against microbic invasion. 
Fleming had every right to be proud of his work. He had dis 
covered a new and very important aspect of those natural defences 
of the human body to which he had devoted so much study, in the 
worship of which he had been brought up by Wright. Not so very- 
long ago, Metchnikoff had demonstrated the fact that certain 
special cells, the phagocytes, opposed the invasion of microbes. 
Fleming had found that these cells contained lysozyme. Was it not 
possible, therefore, to conclude that lysozyme was one of the 
weapons employed by the leucocytes in their battle against the 
microbes? 

As to the skin and the mucous membranes, Metchnikoff had 
thought that they were protected only by mechanical means. 
Nature , he had said, "does not use antiseptics to protect them. 
The fluids which bathe the surface of the mouth and other mucous 
membranes are not bactericidal, or only very imperfectly so. 

"3 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Nature removes from the mucous membranes and the skin quan 
tities of microbes by epithelial desquamation/and these are then 
expelled by the liquid secretions. Nature has chosen this mechani 
cal procedure, just as the surgeon replaces the antisepsis of the 
mouth with a lavage of salt water/ In 1921 most bacteriologists 
held this opinion. 

Fleming had just proved that MetchnikofFs argument must, 
on this point, be modified. Trom the aforementioned experiments , 
he said, it is clear that these secretions, and the greater part of the 
tissues, have, in a very high degree, the power to destroy microbes. 
This discovery was one of capital importance. But Fleming never 
used the word discovery 5 . It was one of those c big words which he 
disliked. He always said my observation . But, whether discovery 
or observation, this one gave him more satisfaction than any other. 
So great was his secret elation that in the first paper which he 
wrote on lysozyme he, as a rule so prudent, so reserved he, who 
either from temperamental shyness, or in reaction from Wright s 
passion for vast abstractions, would never permit himself to talk 
of anything but facts opened the flood-gates of his caution to a 
tide of wonderful hypotheses. 

Not only was this discovery of his tremendous in its own right; 
it also brought to a head ideas which he had been pondering for a 
very long time. Somewhat later, in one of his rare moods of ex- 
pansiveness, he said to Ridley: When I was a young doctor in the 
14- 1 8 war, the Old Man was very much concerned with the 
power of the blood to kill bacteria by means of its own leucocytes 
and serums. But I realized that every living thing must, in all its 
parts, have an effective defence-mechanism; otherwise, no living 
organism could continue to exist. The bacteria would invade and 
destroy it. Ridley adds: He left me in no doubt that he had dis 
closed to me in that simple sentence "every living thing must in all 
its parts be protected" something fundamental in his thinking. 
This, I believe, was the star that guided him all through his pro 
fessional life. 3 

Against what microbes was lysozyme effective? Fleming devised 
an ingenious method by which to arrive at an answer to this 
question. He hollowed out in a gelatinous substance contained in a 
Petri dish either a hole or a gutter, in wjiich he placed some agar 

1 Elimination of the superficial layers of the epidermis in the form of small scales. 

114 



FIRST HOPE: THE LYSOZYME 

impregnated with lysozyme. Next, he planted certain microbes, 
some in streaks perpendicular to the gutter, others in lines forming 
the radii of a circumference of which the hole was the centre. Some 
of the microbes developed right up to the gutter or the hole. They 
were obviously insensitive to lysozyme. Others stopped short at a 
greater or less distance, and this distance marked the measure of 
their sensitiveness. 

Unfortunately, lysozyme, which was so powerful against the 
inoffensive microbes, turned out to have a much weaker effect 
upon the dangerous germs, the pathogenic ones. Nothing, thought 
Fleming, could be more understandable. For what were the patho 
genic germs if not those which could penetrate the defences of 
the organism, establish themselves and cause infection? Now, 
had they been as sensitive to the action of lysozyme as, for instance, 
the yellow coccus (lysodeikticus], they would have been destroyed 
by the defenders, they would have been unable to establish them 
selves and do harm, and this in itself would be contrary to their 
own definition. 

Does not all the difference between pathogenic and non- 
pathogenic lie precisely there? he reflected. Certain microbes can 
infect certain varieties of animal and not others; certain tissues, 
and not others. Is the solution to the problem of predilection to be 
found in a difference of the quantity or the quality of lysozyme in 
these animals or tissues? Starting from this hypothesis, Fleming 
conceived one of those experiments which were always so simple, 
but never failed to go straight to the heart of the problem. 

He tried the effect of human tears on three groups of germs. 
The first was composed of one hundred and four inoffensive 
species, found in the air of the laboratory. The second contained 
eight germs, pathogenic to some animals, but not to human beings. 
The third was made up of germs which were pathogenic to human 
beings. The results were exactly what he expected them to be. The 
lysozyme exercised a very powerful action on seventy-five per cent 
of the first group, and on seven species (out of eight) of the second. 
Its action was weak in the third group, though not completely 
absent. Consequently, if the amount of lysozyme in the organism 
were increased, it might be possible in that way to stop the develop 
ment of certain dangerous microbes. There was material here for 
investigation. 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Fleming asked Dr Allison to join him in a programme of 
research along these lines. But before making further experiments, 
he read a paper on his discovery and on the conclusions he had 
drawn from it, in December 1921 to the Medical Research Club, 
a scientific body of respectable age (it had been founded in 1891) 
which was both exclusive and influential. The reception accorded 
to the paper was cold beyond belief. Not a single question was 
asked and no discussion followed the reading. Only utterly worth 
less papers were treated in this manner. Sir Henry Dale, who 
was among those present, has written: C I very well remember his 
interesting paper, and the way in which we all of us said: "Char 
ming, wasn t it? Just the sort of naturalist s observation Fleming 
would make" and that was all. 

This icy reception of so original a study hurt Fleming s feelings, 
for beneath his impenetrable mask he was extremely sensitive. 
But it did not stop him. He prepared another paper on the same 
subject which Wright presented to the Royal Society in February 
I922. 1 But, once again, it did not receive the attention it deserved. 
Fleming without being unduly upset continued with Allison s 
help to work on the substance, in the importance of which, 
despite the indifference of his peers, he persisted in believing. Be 
tween 1922 and 1927, they published a further five brilliant papers 
on lysozyme. They made an attempt to extract it in its pure state, 
but neither of the two men was a chemist (Fleming used to say 
that he would fail in an examination in elementary chemistry), 
and in the laboratories of the St Mary s Research Service there 
was no chemist or biochemist to be found. They could not isolate 
lysozyme, though they noted that alcohol could precipitate it, 
without destroying it. 

Having observed that lysozyme found in egg-white was a 
hundred times more concentrated than that found in tears, they 
used it for their experiments and established conclusively that the 
substance, at a concentration double that to be found in tears, had 
a bactericidal action on almost all the pathogenic germs and, in 
particular, on the streptococci, the staphylococci, the meningo- 
cocci, and the bacillus of diphtheria. They even tried the effect of 
egg-white, administered by mouth, on the streptococci of the 

1 On a Remarkable Bacteriolytic Element Found in Tissues and Secretions , 
Proceedings of the Royal Society. 

116 



FIRST HOPE: THE LYSOZYME 

intestine. Having made certain that lysozyme was not destroyed 
by the gastric juices, they chose a patient who had an abnormal 
quantity of streptococci in his intestine and made him swallow the 
white of four eggs every day. The streptococci returned to normal. 
Encouraged by this temporary success, they prescribed egg-white 
for several patients presenting the same anomaly, who complained 
of fatigue and migraine . They obtained a change for the better 
in the symptoms. With prudence and honesty they concluded that: 
This may, of course, have been merely a psychological effect, or it 
may have been due to a temporary action of the lysozyme on the 
streptococci/ 



Fleming, all this while, was going on with his general study of 
antiseptics. The purpose of it was the same: to conquer the in 
fections. In 1923, the combined efforts of several research- workers 
in the lab. produced a new and effective technique for this type of 
investigation. Elliott Storer, who had thought it out, called it the 
slide-cell (a slide divided into cells) method, but the slides pre 
pared by him gave disappointing results. Wright, who realized the 
value of this technique, perfected it, and Dyson added a further 
improvement. It had everything in it to please Fleming: it 
required skill in its manipulation; it cost nothing; and it could be 
worked with small quantities a great advantage where human 
blood was concerned. 

The slide-cell consisted of two slides of glass separated by five 
strips of Vaselined paper, placed at regular intervals at right- 
angles to the longest axis of the slides. The space between the 
slides was thus divided into four equal compartments, each one of 
which could contain a small quantity of blood. (Fleming had 
noticed that the paper on which a certain medical journal was 
printed had the ideal thickness required for the strips. When he 
was describing the method in his lectures, he would say, with 
perfect gravity, and much to the surprise of his students: Tor the 
Vaselined strips you should use the Journal of Experimental Pathology *} 

The small compartments were then filled with defibrinated 
blood infected with the microbes to be studied, sealed at the two 
open ends with paraffin, after which the whole slide-cell was 
placed in the incubator. The microbes multiplied in colonies 

117 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

which, in this thin layer of blood, were easy to count. For instance, 
it was possible to observe that, if about one hundred staphylococci 
were put into a compartment containing normal blood, the 
leucocytes killed, on an average, ninety-eight per cent of them, 
so that only two of the colonies developed. 

Fleming thought that this was an ideal technique for making a 
definitive study of the action of the antiseptics on the leucocytes. In 
the compartments of the slide-cell he mixed blood with more and 
more concentrated solutions of the antiseptic which he wanted to 
study. He noticed that the antiseptic killed the leucocytes at con 
centrations far below those required to kill the bacteria and so 
there were concentrations in which all the leucocytes, in other 
words all the defenders, were killed, while all the staphylococci 
flourished: a hundred microbial colonies were counted in each 
compartment instead of only two without antiseptics. His con 
clusion was as follows: These experiments show that there is little 
hope that any of the antiseptics in common use could be successfully 
introduced into the blood stream to destroy the circulating 
bacteria in cases of septicaemia/ 1 By this beautiful and simple 
experiment, he had proved irrefutably that the antiseptics then in 
use destroyed the leucocytes in much weaker solutions than those 
which would have enabled them to act upon the microbes. 

On the contrary, when the slide-cell was used to study the 
action of egg-white on the phagocytes, Fleming and Allison 
observed that whereas egg-white, in marked contrast to the 
chemical antiseptics, has no destructive effects on the leucocytes, 
it has considerable inhibitory or lethal effect on some of the 
bacteria . They made the experiment of giving intravenous 
injections of an egg-white solution to a rabbit, and then measuring 
the bactericidal power of its blood. There were no unfortunate 
consequences. The anti-bacterial power was markedly enhanced. 
And it is possible 5 , wrote Fleming, c that in cases of generalized 
infection with a microbe susceptible to the bacteriolytic action of 
egg-white ... the intravenous injection of a solution of egg-white 
might be beneficial . . . a This was an important conclusion, for, with 
it, Fleming, the victorious adversary of antiseptics, was affirming 

* *A Comparison of the Activities of Antiseptics on Bacteria and on Leucocytes , 
Proceedings of the Royal Society, B, vol. XGVI, 1924. 

1 *On the Antibacterial Power of Egg-White*, Lancet, June 28 th, 1924. 

118 



FIRST HOPE: THE LYSOZYME 

that he had no prejudice against chemotherapy, provided the 
product employed did not destroy the natural defences of the blood. 

But in order to make a series of intravenous injections without 
danger, it would have been necessary to rid the lysozyme of egg- 
white. Fleming and Allison, as we have seen, had attempted, with 
out success, to extract lysozyme in its pure state. In 1926, a young 
doctor named Ridley came to do research work in Wright s 
laboratory. He was not a professional chemist, but he knew a great 
deal more about chemistry than did his colleagues. Fleming asked 
him to extract lysozyme in its pure state. Ridley tried, but un 
successfully. Fleming was greatly disappointed. c lt is a pity, he 
told Ridley, because if we had this substance pure, it ought to be 
possible to maintain in the body a concentration which would kill 
certain bacteria. 

Later, as we shall see, a biochemist did manage to purify and 
crystallize lysozyme. 



Fleming was an obstinate man. He continued to make a study 
in vitro of the action of other products upon the bactericidal power 
of the blood. He wanted, for instance, to measure the action of 
salt. He found that every saline concentration which departed from 
that normally found in the human body weakened the phagocytes. 

What would be the effect in vivo? In order to find out, he gave an 
intravenous injection of hypertonic salt (that is, a solution of 
greater concentration than the normal concentration in the 
organism) to a rabbit. The first injection was too strong. The rab 
bit had convulsions and for a few seconds seemed to be on the 
point of dying. Two minutes later, however, it had got over the 
shock. Fleming examined its blood. At first, and for as long as 
the concentration of salt in the animal s blood remained above the 
normal, the result was identical with that obtained in vitro. The 
bactericidal action of the blood was diminished. But, to his great 
astonishment, Fleming discovered that, after two hours, the con 
centration of salt in the blood having returned to normal, the 
bactericidal power of the blood was greatly enhanced, and this 
lasted for several hours. 

Having perfected the experiment in such a way as to give a 
quantity of salt so little above the normal that it caused the animal 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

no distress, Fleming tried his hypertonic salt on a patient. An 
intravenmis injection produced an increase of the bactericidal 
power without causing the slightest discomfort. 1 

He made further experiments on patients whenever his medical 
colleagues allowed him to do so. But, generally speaking, he was 
given only desperate cases, and even those very rarely. One or 
two other doctors made similar experiments and observed that the 
results were good. But they did not continue. Fleming was very 
fond of this little discovery and always regretted that it had been 
more or less ignored. He could not understand why greater ad 
vantage was not taken of a treatment which was wholly inoffensive 
and was probably more effective than the therapeutic vaccines. 
His sixth paper on lysozyme was written in 1927. It deals with 
an important phenomenon. By exposing microbes to increasing 
concentrations of lysozyme and picking up the few survivors, he 
had managed to create strains 5 of the famous yellow coccus, or of 
the faecal coccus, eighty times more resistant than had been 
originally the case. Had these microbes, in developing greater 
resistance to lysozyme, also become more resistant to the action of 
the blood? Experiment showed that they had. Why? As we have 
seen, Fleming had found lysozyme in the phagocytes. Since the 
increase in resistance to lysozyme kept pari passu with resistance 
to phagocytosis, did it not look as though the action of the phago 
cytes was, in part, due as he had already thought it was to 
the lysozyme which they contained? 

As in his first paper, he here found himself faced by problems of 
the greatest importance. The pathogenic germs are enemies 
dangerous to man, because they force the natural defences. Gould 
it be that lysozyme had in primeval times been an all-powerful 
weapon supplied to primitive man by nature to protect him 
against all germs? Might not the pathogenic germs be, in fact, 
descendants of the few germs which, having resisted lysozyme, 
had acquired an ever-increasing power of resistance, until they 
had become capable of overcoming nature s other defences? If 
that were so, could one not, by selection, transform an inoffensive 
into a virulent germ? This was the subject of his sixth paper. 2 

1 On the Effect of Variations of the Salt Content of Blood on its Bactericidal 
Power in vitro and in vivo*, British Journal of Experimental Pathology) vol. VII, 1926. 
a British Journal of Experimental Pathology > vol. VIII, 1927. 

120 



FIRST HOPE: THE LYSOZYME 

Why was it that this series of superb studies, which had opened 
up new and vast horizons, attracted so little attention from 
British scientists? Was it due to the fact that Wright at that time 
was slowing down , and that the enemies of his school were now 
inclined to accept with a considerable degree of suspicion the 
work carried out in his laboratory? Fleming, loyal as ever, said 
that the fault was his, and that he should have presented his 
findings in the matter of lysozyme to an audience, not of doctors, 
but of physiologists, who would, most certainly, have been inter 
ested. However that may be, the indifference of his colleagues to 
work which, in spite of his modesty, he knew to be remarkable, 
made him more silent and reserved than ever, but also stronger. 
His judgment was not influenced by that of others. His momen 
tum had by no means come to a halt. All through his life he 
never abandoned the search for a substance which would kill the 
microbes without weakening the phagocytes. He had looked for it, 
with his master, in the vaccines. He had hoped that he had found 
it in lysozyme, a substance which could have reconciled the phy 
siological and the antiseptic schools, because it was an antiseptic 
enlisted in the service of the body s natural defenders. Being a 
tenacious scientist who was sure of his facts, he still looked forward 
to a future in which his lysozyme would play an important part. 

Nor was he wrong. Even today much work is being done on 
lysozyme. It interests bacteriologists because it dissolves the 
mucins with which the microbes are coyered; industrialists 
because it protects foodstuffs from infection (the Russians use it for 
preserving caviare) ; doctors, because, when added to cow s milk, 
it reproduces the component structure of human milk, and also 
because they use it in the treatment of eye and intestinal affections. 
All this has come about because an attentive observer, when about 
to throw away a contaminated culture, looked at it carefully, and 
said: This is interesting. 5 The discovery which was received with 
icy silence in London in 1921, has in the space of thirty years 
become the subject of two thousand papers. Alexander Fleming 
always said: c We shall hear more about lysozyme one day.* Who 
knows? 

In the laboratory, those who held aloof from cliques realized its 
value. Martley, a charming bearded Irishman and one of nature s 
gentlemen^ said to Pryce in 1927: Fleming s the really intelligent 

121 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

chap ... If the Old Man had been the author of those experiments 
with lysozyme and other things, what a sensation there d have 
been! At the first International Congress of Microbiology, held in 
1930, Jules Bordet, a Belgian scientist, a former pupil of Pasteur 
and President of the Congress, spoke in his opening address of 
Fleming s work on lysozyme in the highest terms. Fleming, com 
pletely taken by surprise, was tremendously pleased. 



122 



CHAPTER NINE 

THE MOULD JUICE 

God took care to hide that country till He judged His people ready 
Then He chose me for His whisper and I ve found it, and it s yours. 

RUDYARD KIPLING 

IN most of the great scientific discoveries there has been one 
part deliberate research and one part luck. Pasteur, a man of 
unusual firmness of purpose who sought the truth with a com 
bination of pure reason and experiment, was sometimes helped by 
Chance. He was called upon to deal with ad hoc problems which 
later were to lead him to general conclusions. If lie had not been 
appointed to a professorship at Lille, if the distillers and brewers 
of the neighbourhood had not gone to him for advice, he might 
perhaps not have come to take an interest in fermentations, 
though, his genius being what it was, he would have discovered 
something else. Fleming had for a long time been hunting for a 
substance which should be able to kill the pathogenic microbes 
without damage to the patient s cells. Pure chance deposited this 
substance on his bench. But, had he not been waiting for fifteen 
years, he would not have recognized the unknown visitor for what 
it was. H 

Once again, as at the very beginning of his career, he had just 
been taking stock of the weapons which medicine could employ 
against the infections. The means of defence were woefully 
inadequate, but he refused to give up hope. At present , he wrote, 
there seems little chance of finding any general antiseptic capable 
of killing bacteria in the blood stream, though there is some hope 
that chemicals may be produced with special affinities for special 
bacteria which may be able to destroy these in the blood, although 
they may be quite without action on other and, it may be, closely 
allied bacteria. 

He was studying a new antiseptic, mercuric chloride, which 
killed streptococci, though, as always, at a degree of concentration 

123 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

which the human body could not tolerate. He put the question to 
himself whether, by injecting it into the blood stream in weaker 
doses, it might not be possible to achieve a degree of concentration 
which would not destroy either the human cells or the streptococci, 
but might have the effect of making the latter more fragile and, 
consequently, more vulnerable to the action of the phagocytes. 

His laboratory was still small and encumbered. An accumula 
tion of culture dishes was piled in apparent disorder, though he 
could always find the one he wanted without a moment s hesita 
tion. His door was almost always left open and any young re 
search-worker in need of some variety of microbe or of some 
particular implement was given a warm welcome. Fleming would 
stretch out an arm, lay his hand at once on the required culture, 
give it to the intruder, and then, usually without uttering a word, 
go back to his work. When the air in the tiny room became stifling 
he would open the window which looked on to Praed Street. 

In 1928 he agreed to contribute an article on the staphylococci 
to a vast undertaking A System of Bacteriology to be published 
by the Medical Research Council. Some time before this, his 
colleague, Merlin Pryce (now Professor Pryce) had, while working 
with him, devoted a certain amount of study to some abnormal 
forms, mutants, of these microbes. 

Fleming, who liked nothing better than to give a helping hand 
to the young, wanted to quote Pryce in his article. But the latter 
had left Wright s department before he could complete his 
researches. Being a conscientious scientist he did not want to 
publish his results without verifying them, and his new job gave 
him insufficient leisure in which to do this quickly. Fleming, 
therefore, had to work again over the ground already covered by 
Pryce, and set himself to study numerous colonies of staphylococci. 
In order to examine these colonies, cultivated on agar in Petri 
dishes, he had to lift the lids of the dishes and leave the contents 
for some considerable time exposed under the microscope, which 
meant running a risk of contamination. 

Pryce went to see Fleming in his little laboratory, where he 
found him, as usual, surrounded by innumerable dishes. The 
cautious Scot disliked being separated from his cultures before he 
was quite certain that there was no longer anything to be learned 
from them. He was often teased about his disorderly habits. 

124 



THE MOULD JUICE 

He was now to prove that disorder may have its uses. With his 
rough humour he reproached Pryce for obliging him to re-do a 
long job of work, and, while speaking, took up several old cultures 
and removed the lids. Several of the cultures had been contami 
nated with mould a not unusual occurrence. c As soon as you 
uncover a culture dish something tiresome is sure to happen. 
Things fall out of the air. Suddenly, he stopped talking, then, after 
a moment s observation, said, in his usual unconcerned tones: 
That s funny ... On the culture at which he was looking there 
was a growth of mould, as on several of the others, but on this 
particular one, all round the mould, the colonies of staphylococci 
had been dissolved and, instead of forming opaque yellow masses, 
looked like drops of dew. 

Pryce had often seen old microbial colonies which for various 
reasons had dissolved. He thought that probably the mould was 
producing acids which were harmful to the staphylococci no 
unusual occurrence. But, noticing the keen interest with which 
Fleming was examining the phenomenon, he said: That s how 
you discovered lysozyme. Fleming made no answer. He was busy 
taking a little piece of the mould with his scalpel, and putting it in 
a tube of broth. Then he picked off a scrap measuring about one 
square millimetre, which floated on the surface of the broth. He 
obviously wanted to make quite sure that this mysterious mould 
would be preserved. 

What struck me , Pryce says, c was that he didn t confine him 
self to observing, but took action at once. Lots of people observe 
a phenomenon, feeling that it may be important, but they don t 
get beyond being surprised after which, they forget. That was 
never the case with Fleming. I remember another incident, 
also from the time when I was working with him. One of my 
cultures had not been successful, and he told me to be sure of 
getting everything possible out of my mistakes. That was char 
acteristic of his whole attitude to life. 

Fleming put the Petri dish aside. He was to keep it as a precious 
treasure for the rest of his life. He showed it to one of his col 
leagues: "Take a look at that, he said, c it s interesting the kind 
of thing I like; it may well turn out to be important. The colleague 
in question looked at the dish, then handed it back with a polite: 
Yes, very interesting. But Fleming, in no way discouraged by this 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

manifestation of indifference, temporarily abandoned his investi 
gation of the staphylococci, and gave himself entirely to studying 
the surprising mould. 



What exactly is a mould? It is one of those tiny fungi, green, 
brown, yellow or black, which proliferate in damp cupboards or 
on old boots. This type of vegetation results from spores smaller 
than a red blood corpuscle reproductive organs which float in 
the air. When one of them settles upon a suitable medium, it 
germinates, buds and puts out shoots in every direction until a 
soft mass forms. 

Fleming transferred several spores to a dish containing agar 
and left them for four or five days to germinate at room tempera 
ture. He soon obtained a colony of the mould similar to the first 
one. Then he planted in the same agar different bacteria in 
isolated streaks, forming, as it were, the radii of a circle with the 
mould as centre. After incubation, he noticed that certain microbes 
survived in close proximity to the fungus the streptococci, the 
staphylococci and the diphtheria bacillus, for instance, whereas the 
typhoid and influenza bacilli were not affected in the same way. 

The discovery was becoming tremendously interesting. Unlike 
lysozyme, which acted more especially upon the inoffensive 
microbes, this mould seemed to produce a substance which could 
inhibit the growth of microbes which caused some of the most 
serious diseases. It might, therefore, have an immense therapeutic 
value. Here, 3 said Fleming, it looks as though we have got a 
mould that can do something useful. He cultivated his penicillium 
in a larger receptacle containing a nutritive broth. A thick, soft, 
pock-marked mass, at first white, then green, then black, covered 
the surface. At first the broth remained clear. After several days, 
the liquid assumed a vivid yellow colour. What mattered now was 
to find out whether this liquid also possessed the bactericidal 
properties of the mould. 

The methods perfected in 1922 for lysozyme suited Fleming s 
purpose admirably. He hollowed out a gutter in a dish of agar, 
and filled it with a mixture of agar and the yellow liquid. Then 
microbes were planted in streaks, perpendicularly to the gutter, 
up to the very edge of the dish. The liquid appeared to be just as 

126 



THE MOULD JUICE 

active as the original mould. The same microbes were affected. 
There was therefore in the broth a bactericidal (or bacteriostatic) 
substance produced by the mould. How great a strength did it 
have? Fleming experimented with weaker and weaker solutions, 
a soth., a 40th, a 2ooth, a sooth. Even this last still arrested the 
development of the staphylococci. The mysterious substance 
contained in the golden liquid appeared to be endowed with 
quite extraordinary power. Fleming at that time had no means of 
knowing that the proportion of the active substance in the juice 
was scarcely more than one in a million. The proportion of gold 
in the sea is greater than that. 

It was important now to identify the mould. There are thou 
sands of moulds. Fleming s knowledge of mycology (the science of 
fungi) was no more than elementary. He turned to his books, 
rummaged about in them, and decided that the substance in 
question was a penicillium of the genus chrysogenum. There 
happened just then to be at St Mary s a young Irish mycologist, 
C. J. La Touche, who was assisting Freeman in his researches into 
asthma. Freeman had got hold of him because a Dutch research- 
worker had put forward the theory that many cases of asthma 
among those living in damp rooms were due to moulds. La 
Touche was a sensitive individual who found the restless atmo 
sphere of the Inoculation Department little to his liking. But he 
had made his colleagues aware of the importance of moulds, and 
they had affectionately nicknamed him Old Mouldy . 

Fleming showed his fungus to La Touche who, after studying it, 
decided that it was the penicillium rubrum. The bacteriologist 
deferred to the expert and in his first paper on the subject gave 
to his mould the name prescribed by La Touche. Two years later, 
the famous American mycologist, Thorn, identified the fungus as 
a penicillium notatum (close to the chrysogenum which had been 
Fleming s first diagnosis). La Touche very graciously wrote to 
Fleming, apologizing for having misled him. Fleming learned 
from Thorn s book that the penicillium notatum had been originally 
recognized by a Swedish chemist, Westling, on a specimen of 
decayed hyssop. This reminded Fleming the Covenanter, of 
Psalm 51: Turge me with hyssop and I shall be clean the 
first known reference to penicillin. 

Meanwhile, his experiments on the bactericidal action of the 

127 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

liquid had convinced him that he was in the presence of a phe 
nomenon of antibiosis. The mould, a rudimentary living creature, 
produced a substance which killed other living creatures, 
microbes. The peaceful co-existence of the two species was not 
possible. 

That living creatures could be caught up in a vital and murder 
ous struggle, the spectacle presented by the world had always 
proved. They squabble over food, air and living-space. Some 
times they complement each other, the one providing what the 
other lacks, and, when that happens, a shared life, a symbiosis 
is possible. More often, however, proximity is fatal to one of them. 
In 1889 the Frenchman, Vuillemin, had for the first time em 
ployed the word antibiosis 5 , defining it thus: When two living 
bodies are closely united, and one of the two exercises a destructive 
action on a more or less extensive portion of the other, then we can 
say that "antibiosis" exists. 

A striking example is that of all the infectious microbes which 
are ceaselessly being emptied into water and soil. Most of them do 
not survive, and this must needs be so, since, otherwise, neither 
men nor animals could live at all. What is it that destroys these 
microbes? To a very great extent, the sun, but also the action of 
other microbes which are inoffensive, or even beneficial, to human 
beings. There are ancient Greek texts which point out that certain 
epidemics cause the disappearance of other ailments. 

In Lister s Commonplace-Books (now in the library of the 
Royal College of Surgeons), we find under the date November 
25th, 1871, the following observation: in a glass tube containing 
urine, Lister noticed the presence of numerous bacteria, but also of 
some granular filaments which he recognized as mould. Seeing 
that the bacteria seemed to be in poor condition, he made several 
experiments for the purpose of determining whether the growth 
of mould had the effect of making the liquid an unfavourable 
medium for bacteria. These experiments were inconclusive and 
he abandoned them. But he had noted that the presence of a soft 
mass (which he thought waspenicilliumglaucum) on the surface of the 
tube was making the bacteria completely immobile and languid 5 . 1 

1 Annals of the Royal Cdkge of Surgeons, vol. VI, February 1950. When, some years 
later, Lister s notes were communicated to Fleming by Lord Webb-Johnson, President 
of the College, who had just presented the Gold Medal to him, he said, in his reply: 
What a pity that his experiment of November 1871 did not come off. He had 

128 



Fleming s drawings of the in- 
hibitory effects of lysozyme 
and egg white on the growth 
of bacteria 




I 



0) 






? li*0 O 



l^ft 






$VW * /Pr/ 






I 



^ *ru*A 
/ 



-i*.- 






fWt^ 




Above; Fleming s original laboratory notes on 
the first use of penicillin to cure bacterial 
infection in man 



Left: Colony of the mould penicillium nota- 
tum on solid medium 



Below: The mould as seen under a microscope 




THE MOULD JUICE 

He supposed that what was happening was a competitive struggle 
for oxygen, the , penicillium absorbing that contained in the 
broth and blocking the surface. 

In 1877, Pasteur and Joubert had noticed that the anthrax 
bacillus, when injected at the same time as inoffensive bacteria, 
produces no infection of the animal. There, again, an antagonism 
is set up, and the anthrax bacillus is vanquished. c ln the inferior 
organisms/ Pasteur wrote, still more than in the great animal 
and vegetable species, life hinders life. A liquid invaded by an 
organized ferment, or by an aerobe, makes it difficult for an 
inferior organism to multiply... 5 Farther on, having pointed out 
that a common bacterium introduced into urine at the same time 
as the bacterium of anthrax prevents the development of the latter, 
he adds: c lt is a remarkable thing that this same phenomenon 
occurs in the bodies of those animals which are most prone to 
contract anthrax, and we are led to the surprising conclusion that 
one can introduce a profusion of the anthrax bacterium into an 
animal without the latter contracting the disease; all that is 
needed is to add common bacteria to the liquid which holds the 
bacterium of anthrax in suspension. These facts may, perhaps, 
justify the greatest hopes from the therapeutic point of view. 1 

In 1897, Dr Duchesne, of Lyon, gave to his thesis (inspired by 
Professor Gabriel Roux) the title: Contribution d r etude de la con 
currence vitale chez, les micro-organismes. Antagonisme entre Us moisissures 
et les microbes. c lt is to be hoped , he concluded, that if we pursue 
the study of biological rivalry between moulds and microbes, we 
may, perhaps, succeed in discovering still other facts which may 
be directly applicable to therapeutic science. 5 In this case, too, the 
search was not continued. 

We see, therefore, that antibiosis was already a known pheno 
menon. But in 1928 the climate 5 of the scientific world was not 

1 Pasteur, Works, vol. VI, p. 178. 

the idea of penicillin, but he had the wrong mould, or the wrong bacteria, or both. 
If Fate had been kind to him, medical history might have been changed, and Lister 
might have lived to see what he had always been looking for - a non-poisonous anti 
septic. From the time of Pasteur and Lister workers have been trying to kill one 
microbe with another. The idea was there but the performance had to wait until 
Fortune decreed that a mould spore should contaminate one of my cultures, and 
then for a few years more, until chemists busied themselves with the products of this 
same mould to give us pure penicillin. Lister would indeed have rejoiced to have had 
such a thing. 

129 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

favourable to research along those lines. In fact, the reverse is 
true. All former experiments had demonstrated that every sub 
stance fatal to microbes also destroyed the tissues of the human 
body. This seemed almost self-evident. Why should a substance 
which was poisonous for certain living cells not be so, as well, for 
others, no less delicate? 

c The fact , said Fleming, that bacterial antagonisms were so 
common and well known hindered rather than helped the initia 
tion of the study of antibiotics as we know it today/ Such facts no 
longer produced the least excitement, and gave birth to no hope 
of a new therapeutic development. More especially was the 
atmosphere hostile in Wright s department. The Chief was 
convinced that the only means of helping the natural defences of 
the body was still immunization. Fleming himself had shown by a 
brilliant series of experiments that all the antiseptics had proved 
abortive. He had discovered a natural defence, till then unknown 
lysozyme. He had tried to increase its concentration in the 
blood, but without success. Outside the world of the greater 
parasites (trypanosomes, spirochaetes), Ehrlich s c magic bullet 
remained a dream. Wright could say again, as he had said in 
1912, that c the chemotherapy of human bacterial infections will 
never be possible ... 

Fleming, an observer without preconceived ideas, did, however, 
see a flicker of hope in his mould juice . Might not the substance 
for which he had been looking all through his working life be 
found there? Though that distant flicker was, as yet, feeble, he 
decided to neglect nothing which might enable him to achieve 
success. He gave up all other work to concentrate on this research. 

What he did has now to be described. 



130 



CHAPTER TEN 

PENICILLIN 

Fortune favours the prepared mind, PASTEUR 

All the same, the spores didn t just stand up on the agar and say I produce 
an antibiotic, you know.* FLEMING 

THE mysterious mould from Praed Street produced a sub 
stance which stopped the growth of certain pathogenic 
microbes. The first point to get clear was: Have other 
moulds the same power? 5 Fleming s friends remember the time 
when he would stare at every mouldy surface, his eyes glinting 
with curiosity ? and be for ever asking whether they hadn t got any 
rotting old shoes to give him. The sculptor Jennings, a member of 
the Chelsea Arts Club, recollects how on one occasion Fleming 
suddenly addressed a general question to the artists clustered 
round him: If any of you chaps has got a pair of mouldy old shoes, 
I d very much like to have em. When somebody asked what for, 
he said: Oh, for something I m doing at the lab. 

Experiment showed that the other moulds which he tested did 
not produce an antibacterial substance. His penicillium, there 
fore, was more than ever worth looking into. What he needed 
now, in order to get on with his research-work, was a great 
quantity of "mould juice . 

For some time a young assistant, Stuart Craddock, had been 
working with him. Fleming had asked him to help with his study 
of mercuric chloride and to see whether, by injecting it in very 
small doses, it might be possible, not to kill, but to inhibit, the 
microbe, and so facilitate the work of the phagocytes. If he told 
me once, he told me a hundred times , says Craddock, that 
the only usable antiseptic would be one which would arrest the 
growth of the microbes without destroying the tissues. On the 
day when such a substance should be discovered, he said, 
the whole treatment of the infections would be transformed/ 
That was the leit-motif of bis scientific life. 

Very soon Fleming told Craddock to abandon mercuric chloride 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

at once and devote his attention to the production of mould 
juice. They began by cultivating the penicillium in a meat-broth 
at a temperature of just under 100 Fahrenheit. Then, the 
mycologist La Touche said that the penicillium would be happier 
at about 69. A large black incubator was installed in the room 
where Craddock worked. The latter planted the penicillium in a 
number of flat bottles of the kind used for preparing vaccines, and 
left them in the incubator for a week. In this way he obtained from 
two to three hundred cubic centimetres a day of the mysterious 
substance, and this he put through a e Seitz 5 filter with the aid of a 
bicycle pump a somewhat primitive method. 

Fleming studied the cultures in order to determine on what day 
of growth, at what temperature, in what nutritive medium, he 
would get the greatest yield of the active principle. The methods 
he had perfected in the old lysozyme days enabled him to measure 
the antibacterial strength and to standardize the concentration of 
the cultures. He observed that if the broth was left at laboratory 
temperature, its antibacterial strength rapidly diminished. This 
meant that the marvellous substance showed a disquieting degree 
of instability. He discovered that it became more stable if the 
alkaline reaction of the broth (pHg) were changed to a neutral 
reaction (pH6.8). 

At last he was able to submit his juice to the test which no 
antiseptic had so far passed successfully that of toxicity. To his 
great and silent joy, he observed that "the toxicity to animals of 
powerfully antibacterial mould broth filtrates appeared to be very 
low. Twenty c.c. injected intravenously into a rabbit were not 
more toxic than the same quantity of broth. Half a c.c. injected 
intraperitonically into a mouse weighing about 20 g. induced no 
toxic symptoms. Constant irrigation of large infected surfaces in a 
man was not accompanied by any toxic symptoms, while irriga 
tion of the human conjunctiva every hour for a day had no 
irritant effect. In vitro, penicillin which completely inhibited the 
growth of staphylococci in a dilution of i in 600, did not interfere 
with the leucocytic function to a greater extent than did ordinary 
broth. 1 

It was all becoming tremendously interesting. There*, says 
Craddock, was the antiseptic of his dreams, a substance which, 

1 The British Journal of Experimental Pathology, 1929. 
132 



PENICILLIN 

even in diluted form, remained bactericidal, bacteriostatic and 
bacteriolytic, without producing any harmful action on the blood/ 
Craddock just then was suffering from an infected antrum. 
Fleming washed out the sinus with penicillin-broth. In his labora 
tory notes we read: January gth, 1929: mould filtrate antiseptic 
power on Craddock s antrum. Swab from antrum on blood-agar: 
100 staphylococci with myriads of Pfeiffer around. Then i c.c. 
mould filtrate put into right antrum. Swab three hours after on 
blood-agar. One colony of staphylococci and a few colonies 
of Pfeiffer. In films as many bacteria seen after as before but 
mostly phagocytosed. 1 

Thus, even when immensely diluted, the substance killed 
nearly all the staphylococci. That it would have no action on 
the Pfeiffer bacillus, Fleming had expected, since it was one of 
the microbes which had shown resistance in the early experiments. 
The result of this first and modest therapeutic attempt with raw 
penicillin on a human being was not too bad. 

Graddock also tried to cultivate penicillin in milk. After a week 
the milk had curdled and the juice* had turned into something 
resembling Stilton cheese, which Craddock and another patient 
ate, with results that were neither harmful nor beneficial. Fleming 
had asked his colleagues at St Mary s to let him try his filtrate on 
infected wounds. One of the cases on which the juice was tried 
was that of a woman. Corning out of Paddington Station she had 
slipped and fallen under a motor-bus. She had been taken to 
St Mary s with a terrible open wound in her leg. An amputation 
was performed, but she developed septicaemia and it was quite 
certain that she would die. Fleming, when his opinion was asked, 
judged the case to be desperate. Then he added: Something very 
odd has happened in my lab. At this very moment I have got a 
culture of a mould which destroys staphylococci. He tried 
soaking a dressing in the c juice and applying it to the surface of 
the amputation. He had not much hope that this application 
would do any good. The concentration was too weak, and the 
damage too generalized. The effect was nil. 

But he remained just as much convinced as ever of the im 
portance of his discovery. Sir Alexander McCall tells how, one day 
in 1928, Alec and Mrs Fleming spent a Sunday with us. Alec 

Hbid. 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

brought a glass slab from his pocket, showed it to my wife, and 
expressed the opinion that from this slab things would come which 
would create world-wide interest. My wife, just to pull Alec s leg, 
said that it was "only a dirty slab"/ 

About this time it occurred to Fleming that the substance 
discharged by the mould into the culture broth deserved a name. 
The one he gave it, penicillin 5 , is, as he said later, a word of 
perfectly orthodox formation 5 . Penicillin 5 comes from penicil- 
lium 5 , as digitalin 5 from digitalis 5 . Since he had not isolated the 
active antibacterial principle, he continued to apply the name to 
the raw filtrate, but his conversation, as well as his papers, leaves 
no doubt that what interested him was the antibacterial substance 
contained in the filtrate. 

What he wanted now was to extract this active principle. As 
has been already pointed out, he was not himself a chemist, and 
there was neither a chemist nor a biochemist on Wright s staff. 
In one of his moments of paradox, Wright had said: There is not 
enough of the humanist in chemists to make them suitable 
colleagues. 5 There is no reason whatever why a biochemist should 
not be an excellent humanist, but the fact remains that chemistry 
was not represented in the laboratory, unless we accept as a 
chemist the young doctor, Frederick Ridley, who, though an 
amateur, had proved to be skilful up to a point. In 1926, Fleming, 
having noticed his competence, had asked him to purify lysozyme. 
Now he begged him once again to make, in association with 
Craddock, an attempt to extract the antibacterial principle of 
penicillin. 

So long 5 , says Craddock, as penicillin was mixed with the 
broth, it was obvious to all of us that it could not be used for 
injections until it had been freed from foreign proteins 5 (a series 
of protein injections would have caused anaphylactic accidents). 
It was essential that extraction and concentration should be 
attempted before any serious therapeutic use of the substance could 
be made. I have always thought 5 , Craddock continues, that the 
end aimed at in extracting and purifying penicillin was to make 
it suitable for purposes of injection. When Fleming had started 
me working on mercuric chloride, he said that it might be possible 
to use it intravenously in doses sufficiently massive to inhibit 
bacterial growth without killing the patient, and I am sure he 

134 



PENICILLIN 

had the same thing in mind with regard to penicillin, provided 
we could extract it from the broth as a stable and pure 
substance, 

In this way it came about that two young men who had only 
just finished their medical studies, set out to find the solution of a 
chemical problem which proved to be an extraordinarily difficult 
one. The astonishing thing is that, though they did not know it, 
they came within measurable distance of success. "Ridley 5 , says 
Craddock, had sound and pretty advanced ideas about chemistry, 
but when it came to methods of extraction, we were driven back 
on to books. We read up a description of the classic method: using 
acetone, ether or alcohol as solvent, and evaporating the broth at a 
fairly low temperature, because we knew that great heat would 
destroy the substance; working in a vacuum. We knew very little 
when we began. We knew just a little bit more when we had 
finished: we learned as we went along/ 

They worked in a narrow sort of passage, which contained a sink, 
where in the old days the nurses had washed out bed-pans, filled 
hot- water bottles and kept specimens of urine. It dated from the 
time before the laboratory had been installed in this wing of the 
building. They chose it because there were running water avail 
able and a water pump. They had to construct their own 
apparatus from what odds and ends they could find. They 
evaporated the broth by vacuum, because they could not use heat 
for fear of the penicillin vanishing. After evaporation there re 
mained at the bottom of the bottle a brown, syrupy mass in 
which the strength of the penicillin was about ten to perhaps 
fifty times greater than that measured in the broth. But this 
melted toffee could not be used. Their aim was to obtain pure 
penicillin in the form of crystals. 

We were full of hope when we started , says Craddock, but, 
as we went on, week after week after week, we could get nothing 
but this glutinous jnass which, quite apart from anything else, 
would not keep. The concentrated product retained its power for 
about a week, but after a fortnight it became inert. 5 Later on 
(when the brilliant work of Chain had made possible the extrac 
tion of pure penicillin) they realized how close they had been to 
success. We could not know at the time that we had only 
one more hurdle to cross. We had been so often discouraged. We 

135 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

thought we had got the Thing. We put it in the refrigerator, only to 
find, after a week, that it had begun to vanish. Had an experienced 
chemist come on the scene, I think we could have got across that 
last hurdle. Then we could have published our results. But the 
expert did not materialize. And so it was that the attempts at 
extraction were abandoned. 

There were also personal reasons why the two young doctors 
should give up. Graddock had just got married and was about to 
go to a better paid post at the Wellcome Research Laboratories. 
Ridley, who was suffering from boils, had tried various vaccines 
in vain and had become discouraged. He abandoned the problem 
of penicillin in favour of a cruise which he hoped might cure him. 
An ironical feature of his case is that if he had succeeded in the 
business of extraction, penicillin would have put an end to his 
boils! When he returned, he gave the whole of his time to ophthal 
mology, in which he later specialized. It was, after all, but natural 
that both men should be out of love with the research- work they 
had been doing. Chemistry was not their speciality. They had 
made an immense effort and worked for several weeks, only in 
the end to find themselves with a batch which had vanished 
almost at once. 

Fleming had not taken an active part in their labours. C I am a 
bacteriologist, he had said, c not a chemist. He had asked his two 
amateur experts to take over that side of the work and had 
waited, full of hope, for their results. Meanwhile he had prepared 
a paper on penicillin which he read on February I3th, 1929, to the 
Medical Research Club. Sir Henry Dale, who was then its 
chairman, remembers the reactions of the audience. They were 
more or less the same as they had been in the case of lysozyme. 
Oh, yes, we said, Fleming does observe that sort of nice thing. 3 
It is certainly true that he never knew how to present his findings 
in the best light. c He was very shy, and excessively modest, in his 
presentation, he gave it in a half-hearted sort of way, shrugging 
his shoulders as though he were deprecating the importance of 
what he said... All the same the elegance and beauty of his 
observations made a great impression. That impression may have 
been real enoug;h, but nothing in the strangely superior and sullen 
attitude of his listeners gave any indication of it. 

When a paper has been found interesting, it is always followed 

136 



PENICILLIN 

by questions, and the greater the interest aroused, the more 
numerous are the questions. The reader stands at his desk, 
waiting for them. If none comes that period of waiting in the 
silent room is a terrible ordeal. Fleming experienced it when he 
spoke of penicillin, as he had done, formerly, when he spoke of 
lysozyme. Not a single question was asked, whereas, the next paper: 
On the Nature of the Lesion in Generalized Vaccinia 5 provoked a 
lengthy discussion. The icy reaction to something which he knew 
to be of capital importance appalled him. In 1952, when he was 
at the summit of his fame, he was still talking about that frightful 
moment . But in 1929 he gave no sign of disappointment. He knew 
the value of what he had done and that knowledge gave him 
strength and made it possible for him to remain unshaken in his 
belief. 

He had now to prepare for publication in the British Journal of 
Experimental Pathology a report on penicillin. This first paper is a 
triumph of clarity, sobriety and precision. In a few pages it covers 
all the facts. It does justice to the efforts made by Ridley to purify 
the substance. It shows that penicillin, since it can be dissolved in 
pure alcohol, is neither an enzyme nor a protein. It speaks of the 
innocuousness of the substance when injected into the blood stream 
and says that it is more effective than any other antiseptic and can 
be used in the treatment of infected surfaces. It states that he is 
engaged in studying its value in the treatment of pyogenic infec 
tions. In the final summing-up, it recapitulates all these points and, 
in particular, the following: *(i) A certain type of penicillium 
produces, in culture, a powerful antibacterial substance ... (7) Peni 
cillin is non-toxic to animals, even in massive doses, and is non- 
irritant ... (8) It is suggested that it may be an efficient antiseptic 
for application to, or injection into, areas infected with penicillin- 
sensitive microbes. 3 

This conclusion was the cause of the first, and perhaps the only, 
quarrel between Fleming and his master, Wright. When the latter 
read the paper, prior to authorizing its publication (his imprimatur 
was customary in the Department), he demanded the suppression 
of paragraph 8. Had he ndt said a hundred times that the natural 
defences of the body alone were effective? Had he not established, 
in conjunction with Fleming himself, the fact that antiseptics were 
the enemy? But Fleming, the ever cautious Fleming, who never 

137 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

used a word without weighing it well, and who, as the greatest 
possible compliment to another bacteriologist, Jules Bordet, was 
to say: Marvellous theories are sometimes promulgated not 
always with sufficient scientific backing. Young Bordet set to work, 
not to invent theories, but to bring facts to light ... Fleming 
stuck to his guns, and paragraph 8 appeared, together with the 
rest of the paper, in June 1929. 

While waiting for the doctors and surgeons of the hospital to 
provide him with patients on whom to test his penicillin (tests, the 
results of which he published in 1931-2), he finished his article on 
the staphylococci for A System of Bacteriology. A little later, he 
returned to the subject in connection with what was known as 
c the Bundaberg catastrophe , when, in 1929, at Bundaberg, 
Queensland (Australia), a number of children had been inoculated 
against diphtheria, and twelve of them had died within thirty-four 
hours. The vaccine had been contaminated by a very virulent 
staphylococcus. 

In the meantime, one of the best chemists in England, Professor 
Harold Raistrick, who taught biochemistry at the School of 
Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, had developed an interest in the 
products of moulds in general and especially in penicillin. A 
bacteriologist, Lovell, and a young chemist,- Glutterbuck, joined 
forces with him. They obtained strains both from Fleming himself 
and from the Lister Institute. This team succeeded in cultivating 
penicillium, not, this time, in a broth, but in a synthetic medium 
containing some salts and a little glucose. Clutterbuck, Raistrick s 
assistant, studied the filtrate from the biochemical point of view; 
Lovell from the bacteriological. 

Raistrick succeeded in isolating the yellow pigment which gave 
the juice its colour, and showed that it did not contain the anti 
bacterial substance. The objective in view was, of course, to 
isolate this substance itself. Raistrick managed to extract it in 
ether and hoped that, by evaporating the ether, he would obtain 
penicillin in its pure state. In the course of this operation, how 
ever, the penicillin, fugitive as ever, vanished. The activity of the 
filtrate, if it was kept, diminished in strength from day to day and 
very soon disappeared entirely. 

In all research there is a human element. Raistrick wanted to 
continue his investigation of penicillin, but the mycologist of the 

138 



PENICILLIN 

team was killed in an accident. Clutterbuck, too, died while still 
quite young. Then the bacteriologist, Lovell, left the School to 
enter the Royal Veterinary College. *But I did not go 5 , he writes, 
until October 1933 and, so far as I was concerned, work on 
penicillin had stopped well before that date, though why, I do not 
know. I had intended to test penicillin by injecting it into the 
peritoneal cavity of mice infected by pneumococci. Having 
observed the astonishing activity of the substance on pneumococci 
in vitro, I wondered whether it would be equally effective in vivo. 
I was stimulated by some work done by Dubos on this, but my 
investigations remained in the planning stage, and never got 
farther/ 1 

During all the time I was working on this subject 5 , continues 
Professor Lovell, Fleming was very much interested in what we 
were doing, and gave us all the help he could. I constantly rang 
him up about the difficulties we were experiencing over the mu 
tations which occurred with certain strains of penicillium. He 
was always ready to co-operate. He told me of the incorporation 
of a malt substance which he had obtained from the pharmacy at 
St Mary s, and I realized that he was treating the subject more 
as an artist than a chemist. It mattered little to him what the 
composition of the product was, so long as it gave good results. 
That was all he wanted to know. He offered to send me some. 

I think that our main contribution had been to show that the 
mould could be cultivated in a synthetic medium; that it was 
possible to keep it longer when the pH had been brought over on 
to the acid side, and that we could remove the penicillin by 
extraction with ether. It was a great misfortune that Clutterbuck 
died while still a young man. I feel quite sure that, had he lived, 
it would not have been long before he would have realized that 
by switching the pH over to the alkaline side he would have been 
able to recover the penicillin which was apparently lost when we 
treated the filtrate with ether as became obvious when Chain 
took over from that point and succeeded in concentrating penicil 
lin, which was the starting point of the work which he and 
Florey did/ 

1 The team of the School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene published an account 
of its experiments, first in the Journal of the Society of Chemical and Industrial Transactions 
and later in the Biochemical Journal, in 1932. 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

It is only fair to admit that Raistrick and his assistants achieved 
useful results and were moving forward in the right direction. It is 
not surprising that they should have been brought up short, as 
Graddock and Ridley had been before them, by the baffling 
instability of the substance. c We had realized , says Raistrick, that 
the effectiveness of penicillin was no less destroyed in an alkaline 
than in an acid medium, and that, when extracted with ether, it 
vanished. Such a thing had never happened to a chemist. It 
seemed incredible. Faced by difficulties of this kind, we had to 
abandon the work, and pass on to other experiments. 3 

Those who take a harsh view of the discontinuance of these 
attempts for the purification of penicillin forget that similar breaks 
are always occurring, either because the results obtained are 
disappointing, or because of the convergence of fortuitous cir 
cumstances. In the case of penicillin, all these factors played a 
part. The substance was more than usually unstable and, on two 
occasions, the investigating teams, which deserved to succeed, 
were dispersed by illness and death. Luck, bad as well as good, is 
always present in research. The man who is forced to stop short 
on the very threshold of discovery can have a clear conscience, 
provided he feels sure that he has done everything which was (for 
him) humanly possible. This was so with Raistrick and Lovell. C I 
am only too glad , writes the latter, c that I was able to contribute 
even a small amount towards the use of penicillin.;, and to the good 
it has done. 

The scientific research-worker finds his satisfaction in the 
knowledge that he has played his part in a great common task, 
without being influenced by either personal ambition or jealousy. 
No research is ever quite complete. It is the glory of a good bit 
of work that it opens the way for still better and thus rapidly 
leads to its own eclipse. The object of research is the advancement, 
not of the investigator, but of knowledge. 1 

Meanwhile, Fleming was going ahead with his experimental 
local applications of penicillin at the hospital. The results were 
encouraging though not miraculous because, owing to its in 
stability, penicillin had a way of giving out just when its use would 
have been most rewarding. C I am convinced , said Fleming, c that, 
before it can be used on a large scale, it must be concentrated. 

1 Mervyn Gordon, St Bartholomew s Hospital Journal, June 1920. 

I4P 



PENICILLIN 

Speaking at the Royal Dental Hospital in 1931, he reaffirmed his 
faith in the substance and, a year later in the Journal of Pathology 
and Bacteriology, published the results of his experiments on infected 
wounds. He had been bitterly disappointed by the ill-success of 
the chemists. It had never occurred to him that the extraction of 
a substance could present so many difficulties, and he had felt 
certain that, after the work done by Raistrick, the substance would 
at last be available for use in its pure state. All through the years 
to come, he obstinately retained a secret tenderness for "his baby . 
There is much evidence to show that, in spite of his habitual 
reserve, he frequently spoke of penicillin, and never despaired of 
one day seeing it purified. 

Dr A. Compton, for a long time Director of the Laboratories 
of the Egyptian Department of Public Health, describes how in 
the summer of 1933 he paid a visit to Fleming who gave him a 
bottle containing a culture ofpenidllium notatum with a request that 
he should try it on his patients when he returned to Alexandria. 
But Compton at that time was hoping for great things from 
another bactericidal principle which he had himself discovered, 
with the result that the bottle remained in a corner of the 
laboratory at Alexandria and was never used. Fortune was not 
favourable. 

Dr Rogers (who now works in Birmingham) was a student at 
St Mary s round about 1932 or 1933. Just before a shooting-match 
between the London hospitals in which he was due to figure, he 
was laid low with an attack of pneumococcal conjunctivitis. 
You ll be all right by Saturday, Fleming told him, after treating 
his eye with a yellow Iiqui4 and remarking that, in any case, it 
couldn t do him any harm. On the day of the match, Rogers 
found that he was cured. Whether this cure was the result of 
penicillin, he never knew. 

To Lord Iveagh, his neighbour in the country, who bred cows 
and was consequently brought face to face with the problem of 
mastitis, a streptococcal infection, Fleming spoke of a fungus 
which could arrest the development of certain microbes. c Who 
knows? said he. One of these days, perhaps, you ll be able to put 
it in the animals feed, and be rid of your mastitis trouble for 
good and all. 

In 1934 Fleming took on as an assistant Dr Holt, a biochemist, 

141 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

for the purpose of preparing antitoxins. He went through the now 
classic experiments for his benefit: action of penicillin on a 
mixture of blood and microbes microbes killed, leucocytes 
intact which was the reverse of what happened with the known 
antiseptics. c He was well aware , says Holt, of the thera 
peutic potentialities of penicillin, and was extremely keen that it 
should be purified, because, he said, it was "the only product capable 
of killing microbes with a high degree of resistance, such as the 
staphylococci, without injury to the white corpuscles" ... 

Holt was struck by the spectacular nature of these experiments 
and agreed to make an attempt at purification. He reached the 
same point as Raistrick had done, but could go no farther. He 
succeeded in passing penicillin into an acetate solution, but it 
disappeared with great suddenness. After numerous failures he 
gave up. Fleming was once again disappointed, but , says Holt, 
to those of us who lived with him in the lab. he said over and 
over again that penicillin had great potential therapeutic value. 
He continued to hope that some day somebody would come along 
and solve the chemical problem, and that he would then be able 
to make the appropriate clinical tests.* 

In 1935, he copied into his diary where he was in the habit 
of recording quotations to which he attached great importance 
under the date December soth, Friday, Ember Day, the following 
passage from a speech delivered by Lister in 1898 on the occasion 
of his having the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh presented to 
him: I must confess that highly, and very highly, as I esteem the 
honours which have been conferred upon me, I regard all worldly 
distinctions as nothing in comparison with the hope that I may 
have been the means of reducing, in however small a degree, the 
sum-total of human misery. Such was his secret ambition. One 
day, it was going to be satisfied beyond his wildest dreams. 



142 



CHAPTER ELEVEN 

A NEW MAGIC BULLET: 
THE SULPHONAMIDES 

The chemist gives birth to the drug, but the doctor supports its first steps. 

FOURNEAXJ 

THANKS to Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Iveagh and others, 
St Mary s Hospital was growing. In 1931, The Duchess of 
York (later Queen of England, and now Queen Mother) 
laid the foundation-stone of the new Medical School. In 1933 the 
School and the Institute of Pathology and Research were opened 
by King George V. The buildings were huge. There was a lecture 
theatre and a real library, but many there were who mourned the 
happy days when they were pressed for space. It was then, they 
thought, that their best work had been done. The famous teas, 
now held in the great library, no longer had the same charm as 
had been theirs in the congested little room used by the Inocula 
tion Department, where few books were seen upon the shelves. 
When a man wants to read books, Wright used to grumble, he d 
jolly well better write em. It was only a crack , for who, if not he, 
had read the great books of the world? 

Fleming very soon managed to recreate in his new home the 
familiar state of ordered disorder . String off parcels, elastic bands 
and empty cigarette boxes lay about everywhere. He hated to see 
his work-table neat and clean. All the things he needed instru 
ments, test-tubes and the rest had to be exactly where he could 
lay his hands on them. The only chance I had of sweeping the 
place out and getting it a bit tidied up was when he was travelling 
or on holiday , says one of his old laboratory attendants. When 
he went away we did as much clearing up as we dared, and waited 
for the inevitable question as soon as he got back: "Who s been 
moving me?" One of his most frequent phrases was: "Just put 
that aside: it may come in useful." 

Games were now in high favour at St Mary s, as Wilson and 

143 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Fleming had always hoped they would be. After 1930 the hospital 
had as many as five Rugby fifteens which greatly distinguished 
themselves, more than once winning the Inter-Hospitals Cup and 
since then giving four captains to the All-England side. No matter 
how bad the weather, Fleming never missed a cup final, and 
shouted Mary s! as loudly as any student. 

The renovated Medical School had a magnificent swimming- 
bath. In 1935, 1937 and 1938, St Mary s won the Inter-Hospitals 
Swimming Gup and, in 1938, the Water-Polo Gup. This delighted 
the veteran swimmer who was now Professor of Bacteriology. 
Needless to say, the tradition of excellence remained very much 
alive in the rifle club. Every year there was a match between 
students and teaching staff and, with shots like Fleming and 
Freeman, the staff ran a very good chance of winning. 

One year the professors found a student posted at the entrance 
to the range, who in tones of authority was asking each competitor 
his age and noting it down. 

What s age got to do with it? 

For each year over forty we give you a handicap of one point/ 
said the student, condescendingly. 

This annoyed Fleming and, when his own turn came, he said, 
without moving a muscle of his face: Ninety. The student gave a 
start, but, not daring to go back on what he had said, wrote 
down Handicap, 50. 

Though Fleming was now a man in middle life, Wright still 
treated him like a Victorian father. This young fellow Fleming is 
doing a lot of good work/ he once said patronizingly to a visitor. 
In 1928 Fleming had been appointed Professor of Bacteriology in 
the University of London. At the Institute, salaries were still 
arbitrary, and settled entirely by Wright. The principal resources 
of the Institute came from the manufacture and sale of vaccines. 
But vaccines and serums did not, alas! solve all problems where 
infections were concerned. Fleming had had sad proof of this in 
the death of his brother, John. They had been together at a match 
one day when an icy south-west wind was whipping the stands. 
Next morning John Fleming went down with pneumonia. Two 
years before he had been saved from a similar attack by anti- 
pneumococcal serum. This second onset of pneumonia belonged 
to the same type, but this time the serum had no effect. The 

144 



A NEW MAGIC BULLET: THE SULPHONAMIDES 

magic bullet for use against the pneumococcus had not yet been 
found. It existed in the penicillium juice, but could not be 
purified. Consequently it was impossible to use it* 

Since the brilliant victory of salvarsan over the pale spirochaete, 
research in chemotherapy had continued. Ehrlich had demon 
strated an affinity between the doubly nitrogenous dyes and the 
bacteria, and their bactericidal power, in vitro. Chemists in the 
employment of the Bayer company of Germany succeeded in 
synthesizing a large number of such products, and entrusted them 
to one of their colleagues, Domagk, to try on previously infected 
mice. In 1932, Domagk discovered that a certain red dye protected 
most of the infected mice against the streptococci. How was this? 
Probably one part of the dye, uniting with the substance of the 
microbes, was destroying its chemical equilibrium and so causing 
their death. These results had been obtained with doses very much 
inferior to what constituted a danger to the cells of the body. This 
seemed to be an important discovery. 

Domagk gave the name prontosil to this miraculous product. 
One of the first cases treated by him was that of his own daughter, 
who had become infected in the laboratory as the result of handling 
a culture of streptococci, and was saved by prontosiL For three 
years the tests continued in Germany without any publicity and 
almost in secret. Finally, in 1935, the discovery was solemnly 
announced to the scientific world. Domagk came to England 
and addressed the Royal Society of Medicine on the subject. 
Fleming was present on this occasion with Dr Young who was 
much impressed by the figures which Domagk had given. Fleming, 
on his way out, said to Holt: Yes, but penicillin can do better 
than that. 3 The quantity used by Domagk seemed large to him, 
and the results less dramatic than those he had himself obtained. 
All the same, he had been much interested. 

Wright, even after Domagk s visit, remained sceptical. Chemo 
therapy still inspired him with an invincible repugnance. It so 
often happened that substances about which marvellous things 
had been promised had later proved to be ineffective or dangerous. 
How was it possible, said Wright, that bacterial infections could 
be cured so quickly with a drug administered by mouth. The 
German statistics? Wright did not believe in statistics. 

Fleming, however, with the lessons of lysozyme and penicillin 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

behind him, was more receptive where novelties were concerned. 
He had no preconceived ideas on the subject and was prepared to 
accept the evidence of experiments, provided those experiments 
had been faultlessly carried out. To a friend, Dr Breen, he said: 
T rather think that this time we really are on to something. It s 
called "prontosil", and is put out by the Bayer people. 3 Breen, ever 
a sceptic, asked: D you think you could get me a little? I ll do 
my best, Fleming replied and, a week later, gave a small quantity 
of prontosil to Breen, who tried it on several cases of erysipelas and, 
much to his surprise, cured them completely. Yes, it did seem as 
though, this time, the medical profession had got on to some 
thing new. 

In France, four research-workers Trefouel, Madame Trefouel, 
Bovet and Nitti at the Pasteur Institute in the department pre 
sided over by the great scientist, Ernest Fourneau, made under his 
direction a careful study of prontosiL Their curiosity was aroused 
by an odd fact: the drug which was so active in the body did not 
kill microbes in vitro. This seemed to indicate that the product, 
when introduced into the human body, underwent some sort of 
transformation and that an element, toxic for bacteria, was in 
some way released. The same sort of thing had happened with 
atoxyi which, as Ehrlich had shown, was changed in the body into 
a substance containing arsenic and, therefore, fatal to the try- 
panosomes. 

Systematic study of certain derivatives closely allied to prontosil 
revealed the fact that the bacteriostatic activity was in each case 
connected with one part only of the molecule: the para-amino- 
phenyl-sulphonamide. The researchers of the Pasteur Institute, 
when they resumed their tests on this particularly simple mole 
cule, found that, in fact, it alone was active. The hypothesis for 
mulated by them was that prontosil when in the body became 
split, and this was later confirmed by the presence of para-amino- 
phenyl-sulphonamide in the blood and urine of patients who 
had been injected with prontosiL 

This discovery completely altered the conditions of its use. 
Prontonsil had been patented by the Bayer company, which 
meant that sick people all over the world would be dependent on 
them for supplies, whereas sulphonamide, being a known sub 
stance, could be manufactured freely by any makers of chemical 

146 



A NEW MAGIC BULLET: THE SULPHONAMIDES 

products. It had been long in use for the making of dyes because 
the extremely stable molecule gave an added fastness to those 
which contained it. It "clung* to the streptococci as it clung to 
the material to be dyed. 

The medical people in England and in France adopted this new 
weapon against infection. The chemist 5 , Professor Fourneau has 
written, gives birth to the drug, but the doctor supports its first 
steps. The successes achieved in France, at the Pasteur Hospital, 
by Rene Martin and Albert Delaunay deeply impressed the world 
of medicine. In England the new product was launched , with a 
very complete study of its effects in cases of puerperal fever made 
by two specialists at Queen Charlotte s Hospital, Leonard Cole- 
brook and Meave Kenny (it will be remembered that Dr Colebrook 
had left St Mary s in 1930). Though Lister, many years before 
this, had considerably ameliorated the condition of lying-in by 
asepsis, the serious ailments attendant on child-bearing were still 
fairly frequent in the London hospitals, where the mortality rate 
stood at about 20 per cent. In 1936, Colebrook and Kenny were 
able to announce that this rate, in over sixty-four cases treated 
with prontosil, had diminished to 4.7 per cent. The control was 
furnished by the other London maternity cases in which the rate 
of 20 per cent had not varied. This demonstration appeared to be 
irrefutable. 

Very soon sulphonamide (nGsF) was recognized in all coun 
tries as effective, not only against streptococci, but also against 
meningococci, gonococci and perhaps certain kinds of filterable 
virus. The field of research was widened. The chemists sought to 
perfect this magic bullet, on one side by diminishing still further 
the toxicity of the sulphonamides (some people did not. tolerate 
them well), and, on the other, by creating different compounds 
which might be able to attack still other microbes. 

Fourneau and his school supplied some remarkable directives 
to the investigators by showing clearly the nature of the group of 
atoms responsible for the therapeutic activity, the group, that is, 
which clung to the bacteria. The sulphonamides multiplied and 
then, as always happens, became the object of an excessive craze. 
The miraculous element pleased the masses, but, discounting that, 
the positive effects were considerable. The mortality rate in cases 
of cerebrospinal meningitis fell from 70 per cent to less than 10 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

per cent. In blennorrhagia complete cure was achieved in ten 
days for 90 per cent of cases. It could be said that antibacterial 
chemotherapy, as a successor to Ehrlich s antiparasitic chemo 
therapy, had at last been born. On the other hand, in regard to 
certain microbes, the sulphonamides appeared to be powerless, 
and the clinician was still left weaponless. 

Furthermore, there had been cases in which bacteria installed 
in dead tissues or in pus appeared to be immune to attack. They 
produced protective substances which inhibited the effects of the 
sulphonamides. Fleming, a bacteriologist of the old school, who, 
so to speak, lived with his microbes and knew their habits, had 
announced, when the sulphonamides were still in their infancy, 
that resistant strains would develop if, for example, the gonococci 
were exposed to doses of a strength insufficient to kill them, and, 
indeed, it was not long before the undaunted gonococci outfaced 
the sulphonamides. This may be due to one of two causes , said 
Fleming. Either the more sensitive organisms have been elimi 
nated by the drug, while the naturally less sensitive have survived, 
and, in reproducing themselves, have engendered whole resistant 
generations: or as a result of insufficient treatment, a microbe, 
once vulnerable, has acquired the power to resist. 5 

Reticent he might be, and silent too, but he could not help 
thinking that one day his child, penicillin, would do better than 
anything so far found. He was still hunting for a chemist who might 
solve the problem of purification. Douglas MacLeod, the gynae 
cologist, tells how once, in 1935, when he and Fleming were 
lunching together in the canteen at St Mary s, they exchanged 
views on the astonishing results obtained, thanks to prontosil, in 
cases of puerperal. fever. Fleming praised the new drug, but then, 
suddenly turning to his companion, said: You know, Mac, I ve 
got something much better than prontosil, but no one ll listen to 
me* I can t get anyone to be interested in it, nor a chemist who 
will extract it for me. 

C I asked him what the substance was called. He said that he had 
given it the name "penicillin". I had to admit that I had never 
heard of it. He asked me to go with him to his laboratory, which 
I did. He showed me the mould, and actually gave me a specimen, 
which I still have. We discussed its possible use in gynaecology, 
and I suggested that it might be tried in certain cervical and 

148 



A NEW MAGIC BULLET: THE SULPHONAMIDES 

vaginal infections. It was agreed between us that the experiment 
should be made of inserting the substance into the vagina, but 
the result was not satisfactory because the mould was quickly 
killed by the vaginal discharge/ MacLeod adds that Fleming 
asked him whether he knew any biochemist who might succeed, 
at long last, in extracting penicillin. *I told him that I did know a 
very brilliant man, Dr Warren, but that he and I were trying 
just then, to find a way of determining sex during pregnancy. So 
nothing was done/ 

Dr Breen tells how one Saturday at the Chelsea Arts Club he 
said to Fleming: C I read somewhere that you ve been talking about 
your discovery to a meeting of pharmacists ... that substance, you 
know . . . what d you call it? 

C I suppose you mean penicillin? 

c Yes, said Breen. Does it really do all you say it can? 

Fleming immediately jumped down his throat: Of course. If it 
hadn t been true, I wouldn t have said it. 

Breen gave him a friendly tap on the shoulder: c You know I 
didn t mean that. I just wanted you to tell me whether you think 
it will ever be possible to make practical use of the stuff. For 
instance, could / use it? 

Fleming stared into the distance for a moment and then said: 
C I don t know. It s too unstable. It will have to be purified, and 
I can t do that by myself. 



The specialist in venereal diseases at St Mary s, Dr McElligott, 
though much younger than Fleming, was on very friendly terms 
with him. He often asked his advice not only on bacterial ques 
tions, but also on problems of diagnosis and administration of 
drugs. Fleming, after all, had been one of the first persons to use 
Ehrlich s 606 successfully in the treatment of syphilis at a time 
when the method was looked upon as revolutionary. He had 
followed the progress of some of his patients of those days and 
had seen with pride that the cure had been maintained. 

Naturally he showed McElligott his famous culture which had 
been contaminated by the penicillium. This could do a power of 
good to your patients. 

They had a long discussion on the possibility of getting penicillin 

149 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

in contact with the gonococcus. But who would dare introduce a 
mould into the urethra at the risk of provoking a secondary fungus 
infection? 

From time to time 3 , says McElligott, he would ask me to tea in 
the library of the Institute to meet Almroth Wright, and listen to 
that great oracle of Immunology. I remember describing the first 
results of treating gonorrhea with the sulphonamides, and Wright s 
incredulity at the successes we had had. In a way, he seemed 
annoyed that an antibacterial chemical agent should have proved 
to be so powerful. 5 

What was Fleming s attitude? He had his own well-proved 
methods for studying the effectiveness of an antibacterial drug and 
a firm belief in the importance of the natural powers of resistance 
in the body. He wanted to know to what extent leucocytes and 
sulphonamides could combine to destroy microbes. As opposed to 
the old-fashioned antiseptics which he had riddled with criticism 
during and after the war, the sulphonamides had no toxic effect 
upon the leucocytes, or only at concentrations very much in 
excess of those necessary for use against microbes. c Such observa 
tions alone , he wrote, * would make it practically certain that these 
chemicals would be effective in the treatment of pyogenic infec 
tions, and, of course, this has been clinically established. In 
the study of new chemicals designed to combat bacterial infec 
tions in the body, investigations of this kind should never be omit 
ted, and if this were done we should have fewer extravagant claims 
and more truth in the advertisements of antiseptic chemicals. 

In a series of papers read to the Royal Society of Medicine, he 
showed: (i) That the sulphonamides are specific in their action 
(that is to say that they exercise a powerful action on some 
bacteria but are without effect on others). (2) That where large 
numbers of the microbes are present, the sulphonamides have 
little or no antibacterial action. (3) That their action is essentially 
bacteriostatic and the natural defence mechanism of the body has 
to complete the destruction of the bacteria. 



The experiments had been carried out with his very simple 
equipment: slide-cells, Petri dishes, grooves made in agar. By 
hollowing out two parallel ditches, the one filled with a sulphona- 

150 



A NEW MAGIC BULLET: THE SULPHONAMIDES 

mide, the other with penicillin, and placing perpendicularly to 
them cultures, more or less diluted, of streptococci, he noticed 
that the penicillin proved active in all cases, whereas the sulphona- 
mide, though very effective against weak microbial dilutions, 
failed to inhibit the non-diluted cultures. Consequently, penicillin 
was more valuable, but the sulphonamides had in their favour the 
fact that they were stable and could exist in the pure state. For 
the moment, therefore, they carried the day. 

And what about the vaccines? The St Mary s team continued 
to use them, not without success. In an article for the British 
Medical Journal, Fleming drew attention to several remarkable 
cures obtained with auto- vaccines. He was looking for a vaccine 
against influenza and other respiratory infections. As to the 
common cold, though admitting that, more often than not, it is 
caused by a virus-against which we have no weapon, he added that 
in many cases the cold is aggravated by a bacterial infection. 
Sometimes, even, the cold is purely bacterial and is due to the 
temporary aggravation of a chronic infectious condition. In this 
latter case the auto-vaccine could be of help. 

Fleming advised a combination of vaccines and sulphonamides. 
He reasoned as follows: e The effect of the sulphonamides, such as 
693 M&B, is bacteriostatic. It facilitates the action of the 
leucocytes. But these are also reinforced by the presence of 
antibodies. Why not, by means of a vaccine, provoke the forma 
tion of these antibodies? The sulphonamides would be the more 
effective. 3 With his colleagues, Maclean and Rogers, he tried, by 
means of an experiment with infected mice, to compare the 
mortality rates of those which had been given 693 M&B without 
vaccine, vaccine without M&B, and, finally, vaccine and 693 
M&B combined. The answer was clear. With a combination of 
the two substances, but only with that, all the mice were saved. 

Experiments of this kind gave great pleasure to the Old Man. 
There was still room for immunotherapy. Relations between the 
Chief and Little Flem were excellent. Wright continued to pull 
Fleming s leg. Fleming took it all in good part and acted in 
precisely the way he knew was expected of him. In his turn, he 
pulled the legs of the young, who were fond of him because they 
knew that he was always ready to help them, and also because 
he was full of original ideas, no matter how extravagant those 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

ideas might seem on the surface. Even in his gardening he advo 
cated the most startling methods. Once, on his way to The 
Dhoon, he bought a great many bulbs of flowering plants, and 
suggested to an aviator friend that the best way of planting them 
would be by scattering from an aeroplane. In that way their 
dispersion would be governed by chance, said he, and therefore 
look more natural. 

When he sketched unusual plans for his work in the lab., 
his colleagues used to say: What a card Flem is! He never minded 
their fun, but sat, with a look of feigned solemnity, at his work- 
table, well aware that people always laugh at what is new. 
That ll be a success in the long run, you see if it isn t/ he would 
say. In most cases he was proved right. 

Though he was, above all, an observer^ he loved rational explana 
tions, provided they were inspired, and confirmed, by the facts. 
He was entranced by a most attractive theory put forward by 
Fildes to explain the action of chemical medicaments. This theory 
was that the chemotherapeutic products have a chemical struc 
ture so nearly analogous to that of one of the substances necessary 
for the maintenance of the cells in a state of health that the micro- 
bial organism confuses them one with the other. The microbe, 
therefore, absorbs the sulphonamides by mistake, and fills itself 
so full of them that it cannot, then, take on an additional load of 
the substances which it needs if it is to grow and multiply. This is 
what leads to its death, or makes it an easy prey for the natural 
defenders of the body. It was a brilliant piece of theorizing 
if rather surprising. 

In 1936 the Second International Congress of Microbiology 
was held. Fleming spoke of penicillin and demonstrated before an 
audience of his colleagues the experiment of the groove in the agar 
which the microbes had been unable to approach. Once again the 
degree of interest aroused was very small. He was to recall the 
occasion eleven years later, at the Fourth Congress. I spoke of 
penicillin in 1936, he said, but I was lacking in eloquence, and 
nobody took any notice ... Here was something of extraordinary 
importance, which was published in 1929, and demonstrated at 
the Congress of 1936, but which was neglected by everyone 
for years ... It may be that in this Congress there is something 
like it. If there is, let us not miss it.* 

15* 



A NEW MAGIC BULLET: THE SULPHONAMIDES 

Before his audience of 1936 he gave a number of other demon 
strations, too, which, though less serious, amused him. Had any 
bacteriologist, previous to Fleming, had the idea of using the 
pigments of microbes for the purpose of painting? Probably not, 
but he certainly found this piece of professional relaxation great 
fun. Many microbes are brightly coloured: the staphylococcus is 
yellow, the bacillus prodigiosus red, the bacillus violaceus blue. With 
this living palette ready to his hand, he proceeded as follows. On 
a sheet of blotting-paper he drew his motif a dancer, a mandarin, 
a Grenadier Guardsman or a flag. Then he laid the blotting-paper 
on the agar so that it might become nutritive, after which he 
coloured his design with broths of the appropriate cultures. 
All that remained was to put the blotting-paper into the incubator. 
As soon as the microbes developed, the picture showed up in 
colour. Sometimes, too, he constructed small rock gardens, on the 
soil of which penicilliumlaid a thick carpet of moss while the micro- 
bial colonies displayed a pattern of brilliantly coloured flowers. 

One day, when Queen Mary paid an official visit to the 
hospital, he prepared a little exhibition of these bacterial fancies, 
dominated by a superb Union Jack, all in cultures. It appeared 
that the Queen was not amused, for she hurried past it. Perhaps 
she thought the game lacking in the seriousness appropriate to a 
learned institution, or maybe she considered that the microbes 
were unworthy of the Union Jack. But Fleming took a childlike 
pleasure in this strange art, and continued to produce gardens 
and ornamental borders which he mounted on cardboard, framed, 
and gave to his friends. 

About this same time, he asked the Professor of Pharmacology 
(today, the Dean of the School of Pharmacy) to undertake the 
task of extracting penicillin. Unfortunately/ writes Professor 
Berry, and to my everlasting regret, I did not make an attempt 
to do so, nor did I see, as he did, its importance ... I remember 
the conversation very clearly. He seemed so completely convinced 
that his discovery had a great future. I recollect his prediction 
that, if only the substance could be purified, it would be possible 
to use it systematically in the human body. 

At a somewhat later date, in 1937, he spoke to Dr Laidlaw, a 
former worker in the laboratory, about penicillin. I have never 
forgotten the calm enthusiasm which he showed on that occasion. 

53 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

"One day/ he said, "someone will find a way of isolating the active 
principle, and of producing it on a large scale. Then we shall see 
it regularly used against the diseases caused by organisms which, 
I know, it can destroy." 

Such pieces of evidence could be multiplied indefinitely. We 
have only to think of Fleming s inflexible reserve to realize how 
firm his conviction must have been for him to have risked being 
snubbed so often, and that at a time when so many new experi 
ments were demanding his attention. He returned again and 
again to the one he had carried out in 1928. There is something 
deeply moving in the spectacle of this shy man with his burning 
faith in the capital importance of a piece of research, trying, in 
vain, to persuade those who alone could have made its practical 
application possible, to see as he did. Not that they deserve blame. 
Every research-worker has his own problems which it is difficult 
for him to abandon in favour of the problems of others. Three 
times Fleming had seen a flicker of hope, and three times he had 
been disappointed. 

As to his master, Almroth Wright, Fleming obviously could not 
turn to him for either money or staff. I have the feeling , writes 
Sir Henry Dale, that if Alexander Fleming had been working in 
an institute under a chief willing to accept, and even to find 
attractive, the possibility of antibacterial chemotherapy, things 
might have happened more quickly, and been taken farther. As 
Colebrook has made perfectly clear in his biography of Wright, 
the Old Man did not want to take an interest even in the sulphona- 
mides. He just brushed them aside, and treated the discovery as 
though it had never been made. All Wright s instincts were up in 
arms against penicillin. On the other hand, it is true that if 
Fleming had not been trained by Wright, he would not have 
devoted his whole life to waging war against the infections. 
Perhaps he would not have studied the antiseptics or the natural 
defences of the body, and perhaps he would not have discovered 
penicillin. 

Even at the time of his worst disappointments, he never forgot 
what he owed to his old master. One day, when Dr J. Taylor said 
to him: It was easy for you to impose your ideas: you had a 
Wright to back you up, Fleming replied, in a scarcely audible 
voice: No, on the contrary. He said no more, and only smiled, 

154 



A NEW MAGIC BULLET: THE SULPHONAMIDES 

fondly and indulgently. His capacity for silence was matched only 
by his capacity for waiting and hanging on. 

He did hang on, and he did wait. Tirelessly, and with the utmost 
clarity, he described again and again what should be done in 
order to make quite certain of the value of a chemotherapeutic 
drug. c The testing of a chemotherapeutic drug , he said, some 
what resembles the testing which we all had to undergo as students 
to see whether we were safe to let loose on the public as medical 
practitioners. I suggest it should consist of three examinations, two 
pre-clinical, the final, clinical. 

The first examination consists of an investigation into the power 
of the chemical to kill, or interfere with the growth of, a microbe in 
human blood. The easiest way to do this is by the slide-cell method. 

c The second examination consists of injecting or otherwise intro 
ducing into the body of an animal the chemical, and then testing 
the blood of the animal at intervals afterwards to see if it has an 
enhanced anti-bacterial power. 

The third or final examination is the cure of infections in men 
and in laboratory animals by means of the drug, and examination 
of its toxicity to the organism as a whole ../* 



Following the discovery of the sulphonamides, scientists the 
world over had been looking for a substance which would destroy 
certain microbes in the human body. At the Rockefeller Institute 
Dr Dubos was in charge of research work undertaken with 
the object of finding an antibiotic which would combat the 
pyogenic germs. His method, which was very ingenious, con 
sisted in infecting soil with these bacteria in the hope that micro 
organisms, in acute competition with them, would develop by 
selection. 

He made a culture from the infected soil and did, in fact, find 
there the bacillus brevis 3/4, which had an immensely powerful 
bactericidal effect on numerous and dangerous microbes. He was 
able to isolate the active substance, which he called tyrothricin , 
and established the fact that it was a mixture of two antibiotics: 
gramicid and tyrocidin . Unfortunately both were toxic for 
the kidneys, but they could effectively be used in local applications. 

1 Transactions of the Medical Society of London, vol. LXII, pp. 31-6, 1939. 

155 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

And so the torch was passed from continent to continent* The 
seekers were on the right road. 

By 1939 Fleming, now Professor of Bacteriology and Deputy 
Director of the Institute, had made for himself an important place 
in his speciality. But he was close on fifty-eight and it seemed 
unlikely that he would establish any extraordinary discovery 
before reaching the retiring age. Of course there was that penicillin 
of his about which he never stopped talking, but even he seemed 
to have given up hope of ever seeing it purified. 

After the serious alarm of September 1938 all clear-sighted 
men were convinced that war could not be far off. Early in 1939 
Fleming, happening to run into one of his assistants, Peter Flood, 
stopped him and said with a smile: D you know what ll happen 
to the lab. if war breaks out? 5 

The question came as a surprise to Flood: No, he said. 
Well then, I ll tell you ... Most of the staff will be attached to 
the First Aid Service; the rest, you and I among them, will stay 
on here. There will be very few of us, and our job will be to carry 
on with the work of the lab. until the bombs drive us away/ 
Flood nodded. Don t worry, went on Fleming, we ll find some 
where to work, and we shall all be in the same boat. 

Flood replied that that would suit him down to the ground, and 
Fleming s face lit up: That s what I thought you d say. 

He had been quite prepared to accept the prospect of ending 
his career quietly and silently in the laboratory where he had 
spent all his life and then, at sixty-five, retiring to cultivate his 
garden at Barton Mills in an atmosphere of esteem and friend 
ship, but not aureoled with glory. Nevertheless, there are some 
(Dr Dyson among them) who say that he seemed to be suffering 
from some secret sorrow, and that his brevity of speech and dry 
humour masked a melancholy occasioned by his almost complete 
inability to express himself or to confide in others. The general 
opinion was that he was happy in his own odd way. To Professor 
Pryce he once said that he couldn t understand people who took 
their lab. troubles home with them. No worry of that kind had 
ever kept him awake. The only thing he regretted was that he 
could never really loosen up . But he accepted with resignation 
what nature, Scotland and research had made of him. 

Dr Craddock, who knew him well, describes his personal form 

156 



A NEW MAGIC BULLET: THE SULPHONAMIDES 

of happiness in the following words: c He was something of a 
dilettante in his work, not at all the type of man who will go on, 
month in and month out, painfully slogging through hundreds of 
cultures, noting tiny differences, and then, after five years of 
extremely careful work, producing a classified table of variants in 
the same organism. He preferred something a bit more spectacular 
and exciting. He wanted to work at a task he enjoyed doing. Lyso- 
zyme had appealed to him enormously, and penicillin even more. 
It was an entirely new world, and he relished the flavour of it. 

In his daily life what he delighted in were the odd and interest 
ing things. I remember one occasion when he was driving with 
me in the country and noticed a hand-cart of an unusual type, 
which had been made by a village blacksmith for the purpose of 
wheeling heavy churns from a farm to the road where they were 
loaded on to a milk-lorry. He asked me to stop, and, there and then, 
made a sketch of the object which had aroused his curiosity by 
reason of the ingenuity of its construction. 

My son, aged ten, made a metal crane with his Meccano set, 
and Flem insisted on taking a photograph of it, because he thought 
it a skilful job. 

He was fascinated by the clay ovens which are still used in our 
old farm-houses. A faggot of wood is set to burn in them. When 
the clay is white-hot, the ash is raked out, and the meat pushed in 
to cook. The whole operation is performed by the stored heat of 
the walls. The simplicity of the method and the economy in fuel 
appealed to him. 

When I say that he was a dilettante, I don t mean to imply 
that he was like a butterfly flitting from one bright flower to 
another, but only that he was selective in the type of work he did. 
Having made his choice, he went straight to the heart of the 
problem more quickly than any man I have ever known. All his 
work was most carefully done. There was nothing superfluous in 
it. He was remarkably neat with his hands. It is said that once at 
St Mary s, when blood-transfusions were a novelty, a surgeon 
failed to find the vein in a child, and sent for somebody to 
fetch Fleming and he, without the slightest difficulty, made the 
transfusion into the external jugular vein. 

He liked to work in the laboratory for six or seven hours a day, 
regularly, but he was not one of those who willingly put in twelve 

157 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

hours at a stretch. He had done it in his early years, at the time 
of the opsonic index, but now, fortunately, it was no longer 
necessary. He never idled, and got through more in six hours 
than others would in twelve. He adored his house and garden in 
the country and, in summer, would set off on Friday evenings 
with a light heart. But he was very glad, too, to start in again at 
the lab. on Monday morning, and go on with the work he loved. 5 
And so the years passed. 



In August 1939 Fleming and his wife went to New York for 
the Third International Congress of Microbiology. There he met 
Dr Dubos whose work he much admired. Dubos asked him what 
had become of penicillin, which had seemed to be so full of prom 
ise. Fleming explained that he had given the product to one of the 
greatest chemists in London and had asked him to purify it; that 
the latter had said the body was too unstable, and that, from the 
chemical point of view, c it looked as though it wasn t worth much. 

In America, a certain Dr Roger Reid, who worked at the 
Pennsylvania College of Agriculture, had read Fleming s papers 
and decided to make them the subject of a thesis. He had asked 
the college authorities for a hundred dollars with which to carry 
out some experiments (infecting mice with pneumococci and then 
injecting them with juice from the mould and, also, injecting 
penicillin into cows suffering from mastitis) . This modest request 
had been turned down and, when one of the professors had 
offered to finance the experiments out of his own pocket, he had 
been threatened with dismissal! Fleming also met at the Congress 
an American doctor, Alvin F. Coburn, -who took a lively interest 
in lysozyme and in the microbes of the pharynx which put up a 
resistance to it. 

It was a great source of happiness to Fleming to know that the 
researches made so carefully in his tiny lab. at St Mary s, had 
crossed the ocean and aroused the interest of far-distant scientists. 
The month of August was, as is so often the case in New York, 
damp and overpoweringly hot. There were threats of storm. But 
the most violent was the human storm now piling up in central 
Europe. On September 3rd war was declared. Fleming and his 
wife immediately took passage for England on board the Manhattan. 

158 



CHAPTER TWELVE 

THE OXFORD TEAM 

It is the lone worker who makes the first advance in a subject but, as 
the world becomes more complicated, so we are less and less able to carry 
through anything to a successful conclusion without the collaboration of 
others. FLEMING 

THE events and the stages leading to a great discovery are 
many and complex, Fleming had Tound penicillin. He had 
demonstrated the bactericidal power and the non-toxicity of 
the substance in its crude state. He had suggested its use in the 
treatment of wounds infected by vulnerable microbes, and had 
published an account of the favourable results of his tests. He had 
tried to get the chemists to purify it. Obstacles and mishaps of 
every description had made it impossible for any of thdm to carry 
their attempts through to the end. Nevertheless, in 1935, the two 
men who together were to resolve the problem, were converging 
on Oxford from two points very far removed from each other on 
the earth s surface. 

Dr Howard Florey, an Australian, was born in Adelaide in 
1898. From childhood he showed a lively interest in science and, 
more especially, in chemistry. While still studying medicine, he 
married a fellow-student, Miss Ethel Reed. She wanted to be a 
practising physician, and he to give all his time to research. He 
was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship which took him to Oxford. 
There he studied physiology and later, at Cambridge, pathology. 
All the major subjects attracted him and in all branches of 
medicine he was successful, for he had a quick and vigorous mind 
combined with great force of character. 

In 1925 the Rockefeller Foundation sent him to the United 
States where he worked in a variety of laboratories and made a 
number of friends, among them Dr A. N. Richards of the Univer 
sity of Pennsylvania who was destined to play a part in the story 
of penicillin. After his return to England in 1929 he learned 
about the work Fleming had been doing on lysozyme, and im 
mediately showed interest in that astonishing substance which is 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

present in human tears and human nails and can instantaneously 
dissolve certain microbes. The year 1935 saw him appointed to a 
Chair of Pathology at the Sir William Dunn School in Oxford. 
This institution was a model of its kind. It was situated at one side 
of the University Parks, was admirably equipped and employed 
far more research-workers than St Mary s Hospital, since there 
was a whole group of laboratories, all under one roof patho 
logical, biochemical and bacteriological. There Florey continued 
his researches into lysozyme. No one could have been better suited 
to direct and co-ordinate the work of a team of scientists, for he 
was competent in each of their special subjects. He entrusted 
Dr Roberts with the task of extracting pure lysozyme, which 
Roberts succeeded in doing in 1937, as did also another young 
chemist, Dr Abraham. Shortly after taking up his professorial 
appointment Florey invited Dr E. B. Chain to Oxford, there to 
direct the work of the biochemical department. 

Chain was born in Berlin in 1 906, of a Russian father and a 
German mother. Since his father was an industrialist dealing in 
chemical products, he had decided, while yet a boy, to make 
chemistry his profession. As a student at the University of Berlin he 
took an especial interest in the chemistry of the human body 
(biochemistry) and made physiology his second subject. He had 
already obtained his doctor s degree when the Nazis came to 
power in 1933. Chain was a Jew, and went to England where he 
worked first in London and then in Cambridge where the 
Director of the Institute of Biochemistry, Sir Frederick Gowland 
Hopkins, thought highly of him and took a great interest in his 
research-work. One day Sir Frederick turned up in the basement 
where Chain s laboratory was situated and asked him whether he 
would like to go to Oxford where the new Professor of Pathology, 
Florey, was looking for a biochemist. 

Chain was delighted at the prospect. It had never occurred to 
him that he might get a post in England, and he was preparing to 
emigrate to Canada or Australia. He was at that time a young man 
of twenty-nine, with black hair, flashing eyes, and an exceptionally 
lively mind, very different from the English, who, however, got the 
impression that he was something of a genius and not without 
reason. It was Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins who, struck by his 
ability, had recommended him to Florey. 

1 60 



THE OXFORD TEAM 

Chain went to see Florey, who explained to him the importance 
he attached in his department to biochemistry, since all patho 
logical change rests upon a biochemical phenomenon. He pro 
mised Chain a perfectly free hand and the right to choose his own 
subject for research. At the same time, he suggested that he might 
do worse than investigate the behaviour of a bacteriolytic sub 
stance, lysozyme, which, said he, played a part in protecting the 
body against bacteria and, perhaps, gastric ulcers. 

In 1936 Chain, in company with a Rhodes Scholar named 
Epstein, attacked this problem, together with another the bio 
chemical action of snake-venom. The first thing to be decided was 
whether lysozyme was really, as Fleming said it was, an enzyme, 
that is to say, an element capable by its presence of encouraging 
certain reactions and breaking down certain molecules. If the 
answer to that question should be c y es> > then it must follow that 
there must be in the bacterial cell a substrate on which the product 
acted, since enzyme and substrate are as closely related as a lock 
and its key, which explains the specificity of the enzymes. The 
result was positive. Chain was able to extract from the famous 
yellow coccus (micrococcus lysodeikticus] a substance (a polysaccharid 
which was broken up by lysozyme and, in this particular case, 
acted as the lock. 

This piece of work having been carried through successfully, it 
seemed natural to go carefully through the literature of the 
subject , in other words, anything previously published, and to 
find out what had been done already in this field. Chain found 
close on two hundred papers dealing with antibacterial substances 
with a microbial origin, some of which had, like lysozyme, a lytic 
(or dissolving) action, white others killed this or that microbe in a 
different manner. Chain s attention was thus drawn to an immense 
field of study microbial antagonism. Florey and he discussed 
the matter. 

Of all the papers through which Chain had worked, the most 
interesting seemed to him to be the one written by Fleming in 
1929 on penicillin. He learned from it of the existence of a sub 
stance c with antibacterial properties rich in promise . 1 It had this 
superiority over lysozyme, that it could destroy dangerous 

1 Penicillin as a Chemothcrapeutic Agent , by Chain, Florey, Gardner, etc., Lancet, 
August 24th, 1940, p. 226, 

161 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

microbes and in addition was, according to Fleming, completely 
lacking in toxicity. Continuing his reading. Chain found that a 
serious attempt had been made to extract and purify penicillin, 
which was more than could be said of the other substances, but 
that this had come to nothing. 

He was ready to continue the attempt, but the necessary 
research would be pretty costly, and there was a shortage of funds. 
Walking one day with Florey through the lovely University Parks, 
he asked whether it might not be possible to get a few thousand 
dollars from the Rockefeller Foundation. The Medical Research 
Council had granted a few small sums, but these never amounted 
to more than fifty or a hundred pounds, which were almost worse 
than nothing. Florey forwarded the request and some time later 
informed Chain that if a programme of interesting biochemical 
research were submitted, the money would probably be forth 
coming. Chain said that nothing would be easier and at once 
drew up for the Rockefeller Foundation a memorandum in which 
he suggested three subjects of study: snake-poison; the spreading 
factors; 1 and bacterial antagonism. There was enough material 
in these to provide work for ten years. 

Florey approved the memorandum and after a delay of a few 
months went in high spirits to tell Chain that a subsidy of five 
thousand dollars had been granted by the Foundation. This was 
marvellous news. The biochemical laboratory would no longer be 
prevented for want of a ridiculously small sum of money from 
buying the necessary equipment. Chain began his experiments 
on penicillin at the beginning of 1939. Then he went to Belgium 
for a holiday and, when he got back, war was just about to be 
declared. 

Why had he started with penicillin? Florey and Chain had 
decided that three types of substance should be studied: an 
enzyme, pyocyanase; the antibacterial substances produced by the 
actinomycetes (which were later to give birth to such powerful 
antibiotics as streptomycin, etc.); and penicillin. The latter had 
many advantages over the others. It had already been studied 
under several aspects: it was known to be non- toxic and finally, 

x Principles, the nature of which was unknown, and which have the power to break 
down certain chemical constituents of the connective tissue. The most important was 
discovered by Chain in 1 939. 

162 



THE OXFORD TEAM 

though it could be neither conserved nor purified, it could at 
least be easily produced. 

The Dunn School possessed a strain. How this came about 
must be explained. When Chain had arrived in Oxford in 1935, 
he had come across a colleague in one of the corridors carrying 
several Roux bottles containing a mould. At the time he had not 
paid much attention to this, but when he came to read Fleming s 
paper he realized that the culture he had seen in the hands of his 
colleague might perhaps have had something to do with penicillin. 

He went and asked her whether this was so. She explained that 
she had been one of Dreyer s assistants: that Dreyer, Florey s 
predecessor, had been interested in the bacteriophages, forms of 
virus capable of destroying bacteria, and had thought that 
penicillin might be one of them. He had asked Fleming to send 
him a culture of penicillium and this Fleming, always pleased to 
find anyone interested in it, had done. Dreyer had soon seen that 
penicillin was not a phage, but had kept it with a view to further 
work. Chain, in his turn, asked for the culture. 

At that time he knew nothing about moulds, and had to learn 
how to handle these extremely temperamental colonies. It seemed 
impossible to get any constant results. Sometimes the penicillium 
gave penicillin, sometimes it did not. The reason was that 
Fleming s strain had produced numerous mutations. Chain 
verified that the antibacterial substance was highly unstable, but 
this very instability aroused his curiosity. The chemists who before 
him had tried to extract pure penicillin had reached the conclusion 
that c the substance vanished almost while you looked at it. Chain 
set himself the task of finding the reason for this instability and 
attacked the problem by the very much gentler methods of the 
chemistry of enzymes, which he knew well. 

It was agreed that Florey should carry out biological tests 
on the substance when Chain had managed to isolate it and 
to elucidate its structure. Chain himself undertook to work on 
penicillin, and asked one of his colleagues, Mrs Schoental, to 
proceed with the study of the pyocyanase. 

Chain thought that penicillin must be an unstable enzyme. It 
is a known fact that the enzymes in solution often lose their 
activity when concentrated by evaporation, because the in 
activating substances axe concentrated at the same time as the 

163 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

enzyme and destroy it. But Chain had at his disposal a new 
method which had been developed since the time of the researches 
made by Ridley and Raistrick lyophilization (freeze-drying), 
which was being much used in, for example, the conservation of 
blood-plasma. 

The process is very simple and is based on the principle that 
when liquids become congealed in a vacuum they pass straight 
from the solid to the gaseous state. This phenomenon can be 
observed on the tops of high mountains, where ice is sublimated 
(transformed into vapour) without going through the intermediate 
stage of melting. Now if a liquid solution containing different sub 
stances becomes congealed, these substances, when solidified, cease 
to have any action on one another (corpora non agunt nisi fluida). 
If, therefore, the liquid is eliminated by sublimation, the solid 
substances which form the dry residue retain their activity almost 
indefinitely. Here was a way in which penicillin could be saved. 

By freeze-drying the culture-liquid, Chain obtained a brown 
powder which contained, together with penicillin, several im 
purities (proteins, salts), and consequently could not be used for 
purposes of injection. Could one, as his predecessors had hoped, 
extract penicillin by dissolving it in pure alcohol? He tried the 
experiment, but without success. This did not surprise him, because 
he believed it to be an enzyme, and, therefore, not soluble in 
alcohol. All the same, so as to leave no stone unturned, he tried 
again, this time with methyl-alcohol (or methanol) and to his 
amazement succeeded. Some part of the impurities was thus 
eliminated. Unfortunately, however, the volatile penicillin, when 
dissolved in methanol, once again became unstable. The cure for 
this was to dilute the solution with water, and then have further 
recourse to freeze-drying. 

Now that he had in his possession a partially purified penicillin, 
Chain was eager to test it. Since Florey was just then much 
occupied with other research-work, he turned to a great Spanish 
surgeon, Joseph Trueta, who happened to be working at the 
Dunn School on the floor above, with a young English assistant, 
John Barnes. At Chain s request, Barnes injected thirty milligrams 
of concentrated penicillin into the vein of a mouse. To the delight 
of Chain and to the surprise of Trueta, who was watching the 
experiment, no toxic reaction occurred. 

164 



THE OXFORD TEAM 

Florey, much interested, at once repeated the experiment on 
another mouse, with a dose of twenty milligrams, and again there 
was no toxic effect. He, too, was so completely surprised, that he 
feared he might have missed the vein and said to Chain: Let me 
have another dose 3 by no means an easy thing to do at that 
time. With the utmost difficulty Chain managed to get hold of 
the twenty milligrams required and once more Florey established 
the non-toxicity of the substance. 

So, at last, the Oxford scientists had in their hands, in a 
concentrated state, stable and partially purified, a product which 
possessed the astonishing property of killing microbes but not the 
cells of the body. Florey asked Chain to enlist the help of Heatley, 
a young and inventive laboratory- worker who had just come back 
from Copenhagen, and together he and Chain perfected a practical 
method of purifying penicillin. 

It would take too long to describe here the innumerable diffi 
culties which they encountered. The essential points which 
emerged from their researches were the following: (i) the work 
must be done (a), at a low temperature, and (b] with a neutral pH; 
and (2) the neutral liquid solution must be freeze-dried in order 
to obtain a penicillin salt in powdered form. It is important to 
note that the method thus perfected was the one used by all the 
big industrial producers until 1946. Without freeze-drying it 
would have been impossible to manufacture penicillin on a large 
scale. Chain had been among the first to employ this process when 
he was studying the enzymes. 

In order to measure the antibacterial power of penicillin, 
Heatley at first used Fleming s method (holes made in the agar of 
a Petri dish and filled with penicillin round which the vulnerable 
microbes disappeared). Then he substituted for the holes small 
glass or porcelain cylinders planted in the surface of the agar. His 
first experiments proved that the product, when partially purified, 
was a thousand times more active than the crude penicillin, and 
ten times more active than the most active of the sulphonamides. 
(When completely purified, penicillin turned out to be a thousand 
times more active than Cham s first samples and, therefore, a 
million times more so than Fleming s crude substance.) 

Florey and his colleagues had tested the toxicity of penicillin 
given intravenously in a single injection. This Fleming had also 

165 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

done with his crude penicillin. But now, with most of the proteins 
removed and with the substance at last stable, the Oxford team 
could go farther. They proceeded to treat rats with an intra 
muscular injection of ten milligrams every three hours over a 
period of fifty-six hours. Once again there was no accident. They 
tried the action of their substance on the arterial pressure and the 
respiration of cats. They repeated Fleming s experiments on the 
leucocytes. From all these tests , they tell us, c it was clear that this 
substance possessed qualities which made it suitable for trial as a 
chemo therapeutic agent. 

The moment had now come for the crucial test. It was made on 
May 25th, 1940, on three groups of mice infected, respectively, 
with staphylococci, streptococci and clostridium septicum. Heatley 
remembers with emotion the night he spent in the laboratory 
observing the reactions of the animals, and his joy when he saw 
the controls die one after the other, while the treated mice sur 
vived. Next morning Florey and Chain went to ascertain the 
results. Chain s eyes still sparkle when he speaks of the occasion. 
June 1940 it was the time of the great German offensive ... 
and Dunkirk. Was England going to be invaded? The Oxford 
team had decided that, should there be an invasion, they must at 
all costs save the miraculous mould the importance of which could 
no longer be doubted. They soaked the linings of their clothes in 
the brown liquid. It would be enough if only one of them escaped, 
for he would have on his person spores enough with which to start 
new cultures. By the end of the month they had enough penicillin 
for a decisive experiment. This was carried out on July ist, on 
fifty white mice. All of them were given a more than lethal injection 
of virulent streptococci J c.c. Twenty-five served as controls. 
The other twenty-five were treated with penicillin every three 
hours over a period of two days and two nights. Florey and his 
assistant, Kent, slept in the laboratory and were aroused by an 
alarm-clock every two hours. At the end of sixteen hours the 
twenty-five control mice were dead. Twenty-four of the treated 
mice survived the experiment. 

The results smacked of the miraculous. They were set down in 
sober black and white in a note published by the Lancet.* The 
signatories were Florey, Chain and Heatley who had done the 

1 Penicillin as a Chemotherapeutic Agent , August 24th, 1940. 

1 66 



THE OXFORD TEAM 

extracting and conducted the first tests on animals. To their names 
were added those of Jennings, Orr-Ewing, Sanders and Gardner, 
* whose help Florey had enlisted for the purpose of studying the 
miraculous substance more thoroughly. Gardner supplied the 
bacteriological study, confirmed Fleming s results and added some 
microbes to the list of those on which penicillin had an effect, in 
particular, that of gas-gangrene which in time of war was of 
paramount importance. 

These names accounted for all but one of the Oxford team. 
Fleming had never had so large a group of specialists working 
with him. For this discovery to come about, first and foremost the 
solitary worker had been necessary, and only after him, following 
on his heels, the team. The work of a team , Chain has written, is 
important for the development of an idea already formulated, but 
I do not believe that a team has ever produced a new idea. 5 And 
Fleming: For the birth of something new, there has to be a 
happening. Newton saw an apple fall; James Watt watched a 
kettle boil; Roentgen fogged some photographic plates. And these 
people knew enough to translate ordinary happenings into some 
thing new ... 

When Fleming read in the Lancet the first communication made 
by the Oxford team, he had the happiest surprise of his life. He 
had always known, and had never tired of saying, that a day would 
come when penicillin would be concentrated and purified, and that 
then it would be possible to use it in the treatment of generalized 
infections. He had but one thought to see his darling substance 
in its pure state. 

He therefore went to Oxford to see Florey and Chain. The 
latter was taken completely by surprise: he had thought that 
Fleming was dead! He struck me , he says, as a man who had 
difficulty in expressing himself, though he gave the impression of 
being somebody with a very warm heart doing all he could to 
appear cold and distant. The truth was that he was making a 
great effort to conceal his joy, for he had always made it a rule never 
to show his feelings. You have made something of my substance, 
was all he said to Chain. Craddock who saw him on his return 
relates that, speaking of the Oxford team, he said: They have 
turned out to be the successful chemists I should have liked to 
have with me in 1929. 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Fleming to Florey, November i^th, 1940 

Dear Florey, 

I am sorry to have been so long in sending you cultures of 
the penicillium which did not produce much yellow colour. 
When I got back from visiting you, I planted out a large 
number of my old cultures in broth, and I have selected from 
these a number which, while producing a good yield of 
penicillin, did not appreciably colour the broth yellow. I am 
sending these on to you, and I hope you will find them useful. 

I have been comparing the solid penicillin which I got from 
you with the sulphonamides and it seems to be, weight for 
weight, a great deal more potent than the most powerful of 
those on the ordinary septic microbes. 

It only remains for your chemical colleagues to purify the 
active principle, and then synthesize it, and the sulphonamides 
will be completely beaten. 

Yours sincerely 

ALEXANDER FLEMING 



Dr E. W. Todd to Fleming, August 2$rd, 1940 

London County Council, 
Public Health Dept, 
Belmont Laboratories, 
Stanley Road, Sutton, Surrey 
My Dear Flem, 

I was delighted to read in the Lancet this morning about 
penicillin. When can we start production? I am laboriously 
making gas-gangrene anti-toxin, and penicillin sounds much 
simpler. 

I can claim to have been in the same room when you made 
the great discovery. Do you think that there is any chance 
that I might get a knighthood on that claim when you are 
raised to the Peerage? 

Are you producing penicillin for therapeutic use? 

Congratulations, 

Yours ever 

E. w. T. 
168 



THE OXFORD TEAM 

The time had now come to try penicillin on human patients, 
but that would need great quantities of penicillin in as pure a 
state as possible. The substance to be dealt with was a madly 
temperamental mould and it was essential to move quickly. 
Heatley gave himself to the problem of extracting the product; 
Chain and Abraham concentrated on its purification. To describe 
here all their difficulties and disappointments would involve too 
many technical explanations. But it can and should be said that 
they showed admirable qualities of ingenuity and tenacity. The 
group met every day at tea-time, recorded their failures, deplored 
them, but never showed discouragement. The stake was well 
worth the trouble taken. 

After innumerable washings, manipulations and filterings, they 
at last obtained a yellow powder which was a salt of barium 
containing about five hundred units of penicillin per milligram. 1 
At first, the percentage of penicillin, for the same weight, had been 
half a unit. This was an excellent result. Next, the yellow pigment 
had to be precipitated. The final stage of the operation, the 
evaporation of the water in order to obtain a dry powder, still 
presented difficulties. The normal method of turning water into 
steam is to make it boil: but heat destroys penicillin. They had to 
have recourse to the other method, which consists of reducing the 
pressure above the water and so lowering the boiling-point. The 
use of a vacuum pump made it possible to evaporate the water at 
a very low temperature. The precious yellow powder remained at 
the bottom of the jar. It felt to the touch like cornflour. This 
penicillin was still only half pure. Nevertheless, when Florey made 
his bacteriological tests, he found that a thirty-millionth solution 
of this powder was enough to inhibit the development of the 
staphylococci. 

The most convincing case would have been one of septicaemia. 
But this presented certain difficulties. On the one hand, the 
quantity of penicillin available did not permit the injection of a 
massive dose; on the other, the rapid excretion of the product 
would mean that it would remain in the body for an insufficient 
length of time. It was very quickly eliminated by the kidneys. No 

1 This Oxford unit is the smallest quantity of the product which, dissolved in a 
cubic centimetre of water, can inhibit the golden staphylococci in a circle having a 
diameter of 2.5 centimetres. 

169 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

doubt it would be found in the urine and could be extracted and 
used again. But these operations would be lengthy, and the patient 
would have plenty of time in which to die. Giving the product by 
the mouth would be ineffective, because the gastric juices would 
destroy the penicillin as soon as it reached the stomach. What 
appeared to be desirable was the maintenance in the blood stream, 
by successive injections, of a quantity of the substance sufficient 
to allow the natural defence mechanisms of the body to destroy 
the microbes which, thanks to the penicillin, would have become 
far less numerous. The best method, therefore, would be frequent 
injections, or perhaps, even, intravenous drip. 

The inadequate quantities on hand increased the natural 
anxiety always aroused by any brand-new experiment on a patient. 
There was the risk that a treatment might be begun which could 
not be continued. Florey went to see the directors of a great 
industry specializing in chemical products, told them that he had 
in his hands a substance which looked as though it would turn 
out to be a miraculous remedy, and asked, without concealing from 
them the difficulties of the enterprise, whether they were prepared 
to undertake its production on a large scale. After thinking the 
suggestion over, these industrial chemists refused. They are not to 
be blamed. Their factories were fully occupied by Government 
orders for war-material; the methods perfected, with the greatest 
difficulty, by the Oxford team, would have involved an enormous 
amount of work; and, last but not least, the concern would have 
run the risk, after equipping their factories at great expense, of 
seeing some research-worker suddenly solve the problem of making 
synthetic pencillin and so drastically reducing the cost of pro 
duction. 

The only thing left for the Oxford chemists to do was once again 
to work with such means as they could find ready to hand. The 
task given by Florey to Heatley was to produce a hundred litres of 
culture a week and to extract the penicillin. A small quantity of 
the yellow powder was put aside in a refrigerator for emergencies 
at the beginning of February 1941. At that very moment a case 
turned up which, because it seemed desperate, justified the carrying 
through of a daring experiment. A policeman in Oxford was dying 
of septicaemia. It had started with a small infected scratch at the 
corner of the mouth. Then the whole blood-content of the body 

170 



THE OXFORD TEAM 

had been poisoned. The microbe in question was the staphylococcus 
aureus, which is vulnerable to penicillin. The patient had been 
treated unsuccessfully with sulphonamides. There were abscesses 
all over his body and his lungs had been affected. The doctors 
regarded his condition as hopeless. If penicillin resulted in a cure, 
it would be a shattering proof of its power. 

On February isth, 1941, an intravenous injection of 200 mg. 
of penicillin was given to the dying man and, thereafter, an 
injection of 100 mg. every three hours. At the end of twenty-four 
hours the improvement in his condition was startling. The wounds 
had ceased to suppurate. It was obvious that the patient, only the 
day before at the point of death, was now well on the way to 
recovery. While continuing the penicillin injections, the doctors 
gave him a blood-transfusion. Unfortunately, the tiny reserve of 
yellow powder was dwindling in a tragic fashion. It was possible 
to recover a certain amount from the man s urine and the im 
provement became still more marked. The patient felt better. He 
was eating. His temperature had dropped. Two facts in painful 
contrast to each other were now only too obvious. The penicillin 
treatment, if it could be maintained, would undoubtedly save his 
life, but it could not be continued long enough because there 
would not be sufficient penicillin available. Heatley worked 
devotedly, but he could only wait until the cultures had produced 
a fresh crop. He very soon had to stop the injections. The patient 
managed to hold on for a few days. But the microbes, being no 
longer attacked, got the upper hand and, on March I5th, the 
policeman died. 

Florey now knew that if he had had enough penicillin, the man 
could have been saved. But he could not prove a hypothetical 
success. A transfusion had been given and it was open to sceptical 
critics to say that the improvement had been due to that. The 
first test, therefore, had partially failed w The yellow powder, fruit 
of so much hard work, had been used in vain. The Oxford team 
was saddened but not discouraged. When a new supply of 
penicillin was ready, three other cases were treated. All of them 
gave evidence of the immediately beneficial and spectacular action 
of the substance. Two of the cases were completely cured. The 
third, that of a child who had been brought out of a coma by 
penicillin, was getting much better, when death supervened as the 

171 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

result of the accidental rupture of a blood-vessel. But even severe 
judges could no longer doubt that medicine now possessed a new 
chemotherapeutic product of unparalleled strength, which was 
non-toxic. The first patient, when injected, had had a sharp rise 
in temperature and a rigor, but this was due to certain impurities 
still remaining in the drug, and was not repeated when penicillin 
had been completely purified. 

Was it possible that on the strength of these first results the 
British Government would set on foot an immense effort to manu 
facture the miraculous remedy on an industrial scale? Florey very 
quickly realized that the answer to that question would be in 
the negative. England in 1941 was suffering under incessant 
bombing raids. It was conducting, or preparing, a war on all 
fronts. Urgent day-to-day necessities took priority over everything 
else. The men and women who were living under the constant 
threat of seeing their homes reduced to ruins on top of them could 
scarcely be expected to regard the war against microbes as a 
matter of essential importance. But Florey could measure the 
effects of a massive employment of penicillin and envisage the 
consequences for the wounded and for the war-effort as a whole. 

The Oxford scientists approached nearly all the major manu 
facturers of chemical products. The reply in almost every case 
was the same: Yes, Doctor, you have made a most important 
discovery, but the production of your substance on a commercial 
scale is impossible because your output is too small. The treatment 
of a single case needed thousands of litres of cultures. The pro 
position was not a practical one. The obvious remedy for this state 
of affairs was an increase in output and the financing of a vast 
research programme. But the English factories, under the harsh 
conditions of war, were in no state to make the necessary effort. 
The only alternative was to turn to America. 

Florey and Heatley left for the United States via Lisbon in 
June 1941, taking with them some strains of penicillium. The heat 
was intense and they were in a condition of the most extreme 
anxiety throughout the voyage, since the precious moulds could 
not stand high temperatures. In New York, Florey renewed 
acquaintance with an American friend who at once put him on 
the track of the man who could get things moving, Charles Thorn, 
who had identified the penicillium notatum, and was now Head of 

172 



THE OXFORD TEAM 

the Mycological Section of the Northern Regional Research 
Laboratory at Peoria, Illinois. This laboratory had been created 
to make research into the utilization of the organic by-products of 
agriculture which were polluting the rivers of the Middle West. 
The intention was to convert these waste products into usable 
fermentations, and the chemists there had been concentrating 
their efforts on producing gluconic acid by using the fermenta 
tion powers of moulds of the penicillium chrysogenum type. In this 
work they had been using, as their source of nitrogen, corn steep 
liquor, a by-product of the manufacture of starch from maize. This 
liquor had accumulated in the region to an embarrassing extent. 
The chemists had succeeded in making the gluconic acid produc 
tion work by using a method of submerged fermentation. 

Florey passed from scientist to scientist and finally reached 
Dr Coghill, who was Chief of the Division of Fermentation at 
Peoria. To him he explained his problem. It should be mentioned 
that the English scientists (and this is as true of Fleming as of 
Florey, of Chain as of Heatley) had done nothing to protect their 
discoveries by taking out a patent. In their eyes a substance which 
could render such services to mankind ought not to become a 
source of private profit. So extreme a degree of disinterestedness 
deserves to be stressed and applauded. They gave to the Americans 
all the results of their prolonged researches and all their methods 
of manufacture, asking in return only for penicillin so as to be 
able to continue their medical experiments. 

Heatley stayed on in Peoria to take part in the work. The first 
objective was to increase output, which meant finding a favour 
able medium for the penicillium culture. The Americans suggested 
corn steep liquor with which they were familiar and which they 
had used as a medium for similar cultures. They quickly obtained 
an output twenty times higher than that of Oxford and this 
brought them within sight of a practical solution of the problem. 
It would be possible, at least for war purposes, to produce penicil 
lin in quantity. The substitution of lactose for glucose still further 
improved the output. 

Once again we are left wondering at the curious operations of 
Chance. If the Americans had not been embarrassed by an 
excessive accumulation of their steepiiig liquor, they would not 
have set up a laboratory at Peoria. Had it not existed, no one 

173 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

would have hit upon that particular culture medium maize- 
liquor + lactose and the commercial production of penicillin 
might have been indefinitely postponed. On the other hand, the 
arrival of the scientists from England had alone made it possible 
for this laboratory to do the work for which it had been set up, 
since the making of gluconic acid would not of itself have absorbed 
the immense quantities of corn steep liquor available, whereas 
the manufacture of penicillin would very soon make it extremely 
precious and increase its value a hundred times. 

The new culture medium was not the only contribution made 
by Peoria, The mycologists attached to the laboratory were 
looking for mould-strains which would give a larger yield of 
penicillin, for it is a curious fact that all the cultures so far made 
in England and America were descended from the same spore, the 
one which had landed on Fleming s work-bench. Up till 1943, 
nothing better had been found, though a great many strains had 
been tried. It was most unlikely that this particular strain, which 
had not been deliberately chosen, should turn out to be the best. 
The American research- workers had enlisted the help of the Army 
authorities in getting specimens of moulds from all over the world, 
but none had proved to be usable. But the laboratory had also 
taken on a young woman whose function it was to go to market 
and buy every variety of mould she could find. She was very soon 
known as Mouldy Mary 3 . One day she returned from market 
with a mould of the penicillium chrysogenum type which she had 
found growing in a cantaloup melon which had gone bad. It 
showed itself to be remarkably productive. The application of 
genetic methods improved its yield still further, and most of the 
strains used today (after mutations) come from the rotten Peoria 
melon. The scientists, as so often happens, had on their doorstep 
what they had been searching for in vain all over the world. 

While Heatley was working with the chemists at Peoria, Florey 
started on a pilgrimage which was to take him all over America 
and Canada, visiting numerous factories turning out chemical 
products and trying to interest industrialists in the production of 
penicillin on a really great scale. The situation in America seemed 
to be less difficult than it was in England. In early 1941 the 
country was still not yet at war. But it was receiving a considerable 
number of orders, and most of the industrial leaders whom Florey 

174 



THE OXFORD TEAM 

saw showed only moderate enthusiasm for an enterprise which 
they regarded as both uncertain and difficult. All the same, many 
of them expressed their good will and, when Florey left for 
England, he took with him promises from two fine s, each of which 
had undertaken to produce ten thousand Ktx^s and to send the 
penicillin to Oxford for purposes of medical research. His last 
visit was to his friend Dr A. N. Richards whom he had known 
formerly at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr Richards had just 
been appointed President of the Committee of Medical Research. 
This important post would give him considerable influence and 
make it possible for him to interest the American Government in 
penicillin. The journey had been productive of great results. 



175 



CHAPTER THIRTEEN 

WAR AND GLORY 

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster 

And treat those two impostors just the same. RUDYARD KIPLING 

It is good to know that honours can find their way to the quiet scientist, too. 

K. A. JENSEN 

IN September 1939 when coming back on the Manhattan, 
Fleming had had as a fellow traveller another bacteriologist, 
Allan W. Downie of Liverpool. The two men had spent almost 
every evening together in the smoking-room with glasses of beer 
before them, talking about their work, the war, wounds and 
infections. Downie found that, contrary to what some people said, 
Fleming, when he fell in with somebody who was interested in 
the same things as he was, could be very good company. Far from 
St Mary s and the colleagues who expected him to be always the 
same, he was a different man. Mrs Fleming and Mrs Downie 
complained that their husbands spent the whole night talking. 

When he got back Fleming learned that he had been appointed a 
Regional Pathologist, with headquarters at Harefield in Middlesex. 
This did not prevent him from going on with his work at St Mary s. 
He thought that he would be most useful there by sticking to the 
subject which he had studied with such good results from 1914 to 
1918: infections consequent on war- wounds. The young had 
forgotten, if they had ever known, what Wright and Fleming had 
established at that time with so much difficulty. Whenever there 
were wounded at St Mary s, after every surgical operation on 
purulent injuries, he had samples of tissue sent to him. These he 
examined under the microscope and gave a great deal of valuable 
advice. Thanks to the sulphonamides, the surgeons were now 
better equipped than they had been in the first war. All the same, 
Fleming frequently spoke to his students about penicillin which, 
in their eyes, was little more than a laboratory curio. c just you 
wait/ he said to Dr Reginald Hudson, one of these days you ll 

176 



WAR AND GLORY 

find that penicillin can beat all the sulphonamides when it comes 
to the treatment of wounds. 

From time to time he went to Harefield to have a look at his 
Regional laboratories, accompanied by his assistant who is, 
today. Professor Newcomb. There was a fine avenue of trees which 
Fleming the gardener much admired. Professor D. M. Pryce, 
who was working under his orders, says that Fleming had a way 
of turning up unexpectedly and that they were always glad to see 
him. He was anxious to help, efficient and never discouraged. 
Going from laboratory to laboratory, as he was obliged to do as 
Regional Chief, he had to remember the many requests made to 
him. His method was to scribble brief notes on odds and ends 
of paper which he then stuffed into his trouser pockets, hoping 
that they would turn up again some day, and that he would be 
able to decipher them which was all very much in the Wright 
tradition. 

At the beginning of the war he was living in Chelsea with his 
family. In September 1940 bombs fell near by and broke some of 
the windows. Then, in November, incendiaries scored several hits 
on the house. Robert was away at school. Alec and Sareen, who 
had been dining with friends, returned home to find their flat 
flooded, the firemen still at work, and themselves refused right of 
entry. They went to lodge with Professor Pryce at Rickmansworth. 

In March 1941 they tried to go back, but one night in the 
following month, a land-mine fell between the famous Chelsea 
Old Church which stands at the corner of Old Church Street 
and Cheyne Walk and the house. The shock was tremendous. 
Alec, Sareen, Robert and his cousin, as well as Sareen s twin 
sister, who were all sleeping there, suddenly saw doors and 
windows moving in on them, and ceilings collapsing over their 
heads. One door was flung on to the bed in which Alec was lying, 
and would have killed him, had it not been stopped by the wooden 
framework. It hung suspended above him. 

Next morning he brought one of his laboratory attendants, Dan 
Stratful, to Chelsea to help him rescue the most necessary objects. 
We got there, says Dan Stratful, c and things looked pretty grim. 
The damage all round us was bad. Inside the flat everything was 
covered in dust and plaster from the ceiling. In the bedrooms it 
was worse. The ceilings were down and the window-frames awry. 

177 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

It was a shambles. I said to him: "It must have been grim when 
the mine went up." 

"He nodded, and then said, with a grin: "When I saw the entire 

window-frame moving towards me, I decided to get out of bed." 

c We took a lot of stuff to the Institute and I rigged up a bed 

for him in the dark-room. He bought a radio and settled down 

there, at nights, quite happily. 

The family first went to live with Robert Fleming, Alec s 
brother, at Radlett. Then Dr Allison, who had been moved to 
another Region, offered them his house at Highgate. It had a 
garden, and there the green-fingered couple grew vegetables, 
fruit and flowers. When Allison returned after the war, he found 
flowers and fruit growing everywhere, sometimes in the most 
unexpected places. Fleming s horticultural experiments had been 
successful. He spent most nights at the hospital. During the raids 
someone had to do duty as a fire-watcher on the roof. Generally, 
it was arranged that only one man at a time should take this risk, 
but Fleming, always attracted by the spectacular, could not resist 
going up there when he heard the alert. 

Many of the doctors and students slept in a dormitory which had 
been arranged in the basement, with hot-water pipes round 
them, and their clothes hanging all over the place. They took their 
meals in the school .canteen. Professor Fleming shared this life, 
not without a certain sense of satisfaction. There was a good deal 
of the bachelor in him, and he enjoyed the company of men. 
Sometimes, when a research-worker was kept late in the laboratory, 
the door would open, and in would walk the professor with his 
neat little bow-tie, and a cigarette dangling from his lips. With 
an eager and expectant look, he would say: "What about a pot of 
beer?" The worker would abandon his microscope and the two 
of them would go off together to the near-by pub, the Fountains, 
where they would find other St Mary s men. 

Fleming loved this atmosphere of youth where he was treated 
with affection and respect. The constant banging of the slot- 
machines and the cascade of coins when somebody struck lucky 
made the bar-parlour a lively place. Sometimes he ordered beer, 
sometimes an M&B, which was a play on words for the 
bacteriologists, because the two initials stood for both mild and 
bitter and c May & Baker . He would spend a happy hour of 

178 



WAR AND GLORY 

relaxation there and then go back either to the hospital or to 
Highgate with Allison, who had kept a pied-a-terre in the house 
which he had lent to the Flemings. 



Meanwhile at Oxford, while Florey was absent on his successful 
trip to America, the team under Chain s direction had been doing 
a great deal of work. The method of extraction had been perfected. 
What amounted to a factory was springing up, with Dr Sanders in 
charge. Several young women, known as the Penicillin Girls , 
worked in the bitterly cold room, muffled in woollen comforters 
and wearing warm gloves. The most serious problem was the 
contamination of the cultures. In vain did the Penicillin Girls 
watch their every step so as not to stir up dust or create a draught. 
In vain were the floor and the benches painted with oil. In vain 
did the young women wear protective masks over their mouths. 
In vain was a curtain hung in front of the door and gone over 
every day with a vacuum cleaner. One single germ was enough to 
spoil a whole batch*. 

Nevertheless, a small stock of the precious powder was being 
built up in the refrigerator against the day when it should be 
needed for a case. Florey was waiting for his ten thousand litres 
from America, but time was passing, and nothing came. He did 
not fail, however, to give part of his store for the treating of infected 
wounds. The first patients on whom it was used were some R.A.F. 
pilots who had been seriously burned during the Battle of Britain. 
Then the Oxford team sent a small parcel of penicillin to Professor 
(at that time, Lieutenant- Colonel) Pulvertaft, a bacteriologist 
working in Egypt, for the use of the Desert Army. 

*We had an enormous number of infected wounded, says 
Pulvertaft, terrible burn cases among the crews of the naval 
armoured cars, and fractures infected with streptococci. The 
medical journals told us that the sulphonamides would get the 
better of any infection. My own experience was that the sulphona 
mides, like other new products sent us from America, had abso 
lutely no effect on these cases. The last thing I tried was penicillin. 
I had very little of it, something like ten thousand units, maybe less. 
The first man I tried it on was a young New Zealand officer called 
Newton. He had been in bed for six months with compound 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

fractures in both legs. His sheets were saturated with pus and the 
heat in Cairo made the smell intolerable. He was little more than 
skin and bone and was running a high temperature. Normally, he 
would have died in a very short while, as did all our wounded 
when infection was prolonged. We introduced small rubber tubes 
into the sinuses of the left leg and injected with a very weak 
solution of penicillin (a few hundred units per cubic centimetre) , 
because we had so little. I gave three injections a day and studied 
the effects under the microscope. I noticed, much to my surprise, 
that after the first treatment the streptococci were inside the 
leucocytes. That was a tremendous moment. Out there in Cairo, 
I knew nothing of what was being done in England, and the thing 
seemed like a miracle. In ten days the left leg was cured, and in a 
month s time the young fellow was back on his feet. I had enough 
penicillin left for ten cases. Nine of them were complete cures. 
We at the hospital were now convinced that a new and important 
therapeutic had been found. We even got a culture sent out from 
England, so s we might produce the stuff ourselves. A sort of 
factory was set up in the Old Citadel. But, of course, we hadn t 
the means to concentrate the substance ... 

Between 1940 and 1942 very little was said about Alexander 
Fleming. His publications had been forgotten. Several research- 
workers, in perfect good faith, published as original discoveries 
facts which had already been described in his early papers. In 
August 1942 he was led in dramatic circumstances to carry out his 
first therapeutic test with purified penicillin, on a patient whose 
condition appeared to be hopeless. The patient was a friend of his, 
a man of fifty-two. He was one of the directors of Robert 
Fleming s firm (which made optical instruments) and had been 
admitted to St Mary s in a dying state about the middle of June. 
The diagnosis was difficult. The patient showed symptoms of 
meningitis, but examination of the cerebro-spinal fluid did not 
reveal the presence of the expected microbe. Fleming worked tooth 
and nail on this rebellious case and finally succeeded in disclosing 
the presence of a streptococcus. He tested its sensitivity to sulpho- 
namides but without success, and then to penicillin, in the 
only form he had (an impure filtrate). The penicillin worked 
and, on the agar, eliminated the germs within a radius of 
eleven millimetres. But the only reserve of pure penicillin then to 

1 80 



WAR AND GLORY 

be found in England, and a very small reserve at that, was at 
Oxford. 

On the 6th he telephoned Florey and explained matters to him: 
If you could possibly spare a little penicillin, I should like to 
try it. Florey gave him the penicillin with full instructions how 
to use it, on condition that his case formed one of the series of 
cases which were being treated in Oxford. 

"He was good enough , wrote Fleming, e to place his whole 
stock at my disposal. On the night of the 5/6 the patient was 
drowsy, comatose, with bouts of extreme restlessness, during which 
he was wandering and rambling: he had been suffering from 
uncontrollable hiccough for 10 days. On the evening of August 
6, three-hourly intramuscular injections of penicillin (15,000 
units) were begun. Some improvement was almost immediately 
manifest. In 24 hours the patient was mentally clearer, the 
hiccough had disappeared, and head-retraction was less marked. 
The temperature had fallen to 97 F. But when the spinal fluid 
was examined it was found that little or no penicillin was present. 

C I consulted Florey on the telephone about the possibility 
of injecting penicillin into the spinal theca. He had never done it, 
but as the case was desperate, and from what I knew about the 
innocuity of penicillin to human cells, I injected 5000 units by 
lumbar puncture. Later in the day Florey rang me up on the 
telephone and told ine he had injected penicillin into the spinal 
theca of a cat and that the cat had promptly died. However, the 
man did not die. The injection of penicillin into his spinal canal 
did not upset him at all and he made a rapid recovery. On Aug 
28th he got up. His temperature had been normal for two weeks 
and he had no sign of meningitis. On Sept gth he left the hospital, 
completely cured. 

Here was a man who seemed to be dying, but who, in a few 
days, with penicillin treatment, was out of danger. Such a case 
makes a great impression on one/ 

This miraculous cure was tremendously talked about, both at 
St Mary s and in medical circles everywhere. On August 27th, 
1942, The Times published a leading article entitled c Penicillium ? 
laying stress on the hopes which this substance, a hundred times 
more active than the sulphonamides, must arouse. At the moment, 
said the article, it was not easy to obtain a synthetic product, but 

181 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

that did not much matter, since the mould was easily accessible. 
There will , it went on, be general agreement with the plea of the 
Lancet that "in view of its potentialities" methods of producing 
penicillin on a large scale should be developed as quickly as 
possible. 

This was more than advice given to the British Government: it 
was tantamount to an order. 

The article mentioned neither Fleming nor the research- workers 
at Oxford, but on August 3ist, The Times printed a letter from 
Sir Almroth Wright: 

TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES 

Sir, In the leading article on penicillin in your issue yester 
day, you refrained from putting the laurel-wreath for this 
discovery round anybody s brow. I would, with your per 
mission, supplement your article by pointing out that, on the 
principle of palmam qui meruit ferat^ it should be decreed to 
Professor Alexander Fleming of this research laboratory. For 
he is the discoverer of penicillin and was the author also of 
the original suggestion that this substance might prove to have 
important applications in medicine. 

I am, Sir, yours faithfully, 

ALMROTH WRIGHT 

Inoculation Department, 

St Mary s Hospital, 

Paddington, W.2 Aug. 28 

Thus did the old master proclaim the merits of his disciple. It 
must have cost him a great effort of intellectual honesty which 
he made with perfect loyalty publicly to sing the praises of 
chemotherapy. He continued to believe, or at least to hope, that 
in the last analysis immunization would prevail as was only 
natural. 

Wright, now 81, had left London and was living in the country 
(at Farnham Common). But he still came up, three times a week, 
to spend a few hours in the laboratory. His train was often delayed 
by air-raids. He might have made the journey by car, but that 
would have meant, he said, being driven by women (the only 
available chauffeurs in war-time) and they would have talked all 
the way. 5 He preferred the fatigue and danger of the railway. 

182 



WAR AND GLORY 

About Wright and Fleming we have a good deal of first-hand 
evidence from a secretary, the first Fleming had ever had 
Mrs Buckley. What struck me , she says, was the extraordinary 
difference between the two men: between the great master 
and the great pupil: between Sir Almroth, a creature of intellect, 
urbane, academic; and Professor Fleming, also with a powerful 
brain, but much more like a child in his manner of dealing with 
everything, even with his work. He had an astonishing simplicity 
of approach, and it was this, I imagine, which so often led him to 
the right solution of a problem. Yes, they saw things with very 
different eyes, but the Professor was always the most loyal of 
disciples. 

Wright had by no means lost his love of argument. C I remember , 
says Professor Pulvertaft, one occasion in particular when I had 
gone to tea with him. We talked, or rather, he talked, about 
Shakespeare, of whom he had a somewhat poor opinion. He said 
that Shakespeare did not doubt enough, that no one could be an 
artist who was too certain. None of Shakespeare s characters had 
doubts. I murmured, rather treacherously: "To be or not to be; 
that is the question." He gave a loud sniff and changed the 
subject. 

During and after the miraculous cure of 1942, Fleming and 
Florey corresponded. Both of them thought that the time had 
come to start mass-production of a substance capable of achieving 
such marvels. In August, Fleming said to his host and friend, 
Dr Allison: Things look promising ... I am going to see Sir 
Andrew Duncan, the Minister of Supply. He is a Scot and a 
friend. Will you, on your side, make the Ministry of Health 
people get a move on and press for the industrial manufacture of 
penicillin? He duly went to see Sir Andrew who, much impressed 
by the miraculous effects of the substance, replied: I am going 
to give you a committee, and a very active man who will get 
things moving. 

Sir Andrew sent for Sir Cecil Weir, the Director-General of 
Equipment, and a remarkable organizer. Fleming , said the 
Minister, has been talking to me about penicillin. He believes, 
and so do I, that it offers immense possibilities for the treatment 
of wounds and of numerous diseases. I want you to do everything 
you can to organize its production on a great scale. 

183 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

On September 25th, 1942, Sir Cecil Weir summoned to a 
conference at Portland House, Fleming, Florey, Raistrick, Arthur 
Mortimer (his assistant) and representatives of the chemical and 
pharmaceutical industries; in short,, all those interested in the 
manufacture of penicillin. 

Five big firms May & Baker, Glaxo, Burroughs Wellcome, 
British Drug Houses, and Boots had formed, in 1941, the 
Therapeutic Research Corporation , to which all had pledged 
themselves to communicate what they could find out on the 
subject of penicillin. Other large concerns, I.G.I, and Kemball, 
Bishop, were in direct contact with the Oxford team, and the latter 
had even made a free delivery of penicillin to Florey s Institute a 
few days before the committee met. 

Sir Cecil Weir said that all information about the substance and 
its production must be shared. Research-workers and industrialists 
must keep one single goal before their eyes: rapid and abundant 
production. The reaction was unanimous, enthusiastic and favour 
able. All undertook to share their secrets and to enlist their 
knowledge and their talents in the service of the community. 
Florey told how he had passed on the results obtained at Oxford 
to the American concerns. He added that reciprocity ought to be 
complete and expressed some uneasiness about patents taken out 
by American research-workers to protect the manufacturing 
processes. The Therapeutic Research Corporation promised that 
all information received from America should be made available 
to the English scientists. 

It was, however, agreed that the work of the different labora 
tories should not be centralized. A single research centre would, in 
view of air-raids, be too vulnerable. As to the quantities to be 
produced, it seemed premature to discuss that question there and 
then. Florey informed the conference that, though enormous 
doses had been necessary for the treatment of a single case of 
septicaemia or of meningitis, that would not be so in the treatment 
of local infections. Experiments made, for example, on burns 
showed that ten grams a month would suffice for all infected burns 
in the Middle East Forces. Dr Maxwell announced that the 
Therapeutic Research Corporation was thinking of putting up a 
factory capable of delivering a million litres every year. I.C.I. 
also had a plan. As to the distribution of the finished product, 

184 



WAR AND GLORY 

Florey hoped that it would be made under the control of biologists, 
as a safeguard against the improper and harmful use so often made 
of new remedies. 

At the end of the conference, Arthur Mortimer whispered in 
his chief s ear: I don t know whether you realize it, but this will 
rank as an historic meeting, not only in the annals of medicine, 
but probably in the history of the world. For the first time, all 
those concerned in the production of a remedy, are going to give 
their knowledge and their work without any ulterior motive of 
gain or ambition/ 

Manufacture got under way very soon. A General Committee 
of Penicillin 3 , at first presided over by Arthur Mortimer, and later 
by Sir Henry Dale, directed the operation. Professor Raistrick was 
its technical adviser and rendered immense services. He went to 
America, as did the engineers belonging to the great manufactur 
ing chemists, to study the progress already made. 



In the United States the large-scale production of penicillin had 
got off to a slow start. 1 The chemists wanted fermentation in 
depth, but penicillium prefers to live on the surface. In addition, 
the struggle against contamination remained difficult. One of the 
firms which made a great effort was Charles Pfizer & Co., Inc. 
It was not a factory specializing in pharmaceutical products, 
but its staff had a great experience of fermentations. One of the 
directors, John L. Smith, a little man with grey hair and a 
poker face, who with his technical advisers, had tried, so far 
without success, to industrialize the production of penicillin, 
happened to witness the resurrection of a little girl smitten with 
an infection which every doctor had, so far, despaired of curing. 

She was suffering from infective endocarditis and was going to 
die. In June 1943 one of the hospital doctors, a man from Brooklyn, 
Loewe by name, came to Smith and asked him for some penicillin 
with which to treat her. Smith objected on the ground that the 
National Research Council reserved to itself the allocation of this 
rare product, and was of the opinion that it had no effect on 
endocarditis. Loewe said that, provided it were used in conjunc 
tion with heparin, penicillin would be effective. Smith went to 

1 Paul de Kruif, Life Among the Doctors (Harcourt Brace, 1949). 

185 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

see the little girl an action which, for the overworked head of 
a big firm, was both praiseworthy and surprising. He was deeply 
moved by what he saw, broke the regulations, and gave Loewe 
some penicillin. For three days the golden liquid flowed, drop by 
drop, into one of the young sufferer s veins. Every day, after long 
hours of work, Smith went to her bedside. When she was getting 
better, Loewe was satisfied with intra-muscular injections. One 
month later, the girl was out of danger. 

Loewe then undertook the treatment of other obstinate cases 
and Smith continued to help him. The doctor was by that time 
administering up to 200,000 units a day. What did it matter, 
seeing that penicillin was non-toxic? But the National Research 
Council insisted on the regulations being observed. Endocarditis 
was still excluded since, according to the Council, the statistics 
were not convincing 5 . The patients, however, continued to take 
on a new lease of life, and Smith, in spite of the risk, went on 
supplying Loewe with penicillin. In October 1943 the Council 
sent a representative to Brooklyn to take a look at those sick folk 
who had walked out of their coffins. Take an eyeful of me, said 
one old woman. Tm alive amn t I? 3 Her eyes were shining. All the 
same, statistically, I m dead. 5 

After his visits to the hospital, Smith returned to the factory a 
changed man. You ve saved another life, 5 he said to his engineers, 
bacteriologists and mycologists. All, thrilled by the grandeur of 
the struggle, spared neither time nor trouble. By sheer determina 
tion they succeeded, by sterilizing the air, in producing deep 
fermentation in huge vats. Bacteriology for giants. In all the 
rooms there were notices: Exercise scrupulous care ... contamination 
of penicillin may cause death ... Penicillin must be absolutely sterile. Are 
you doing everything you can to see that it is? The sick are relying upon 
your vigilance to protect them In America this sort of appeal never fails. 
Very soon a torrent of penicillin was cleansing infected bodies. 

Arthur Mortimer tells how certain persons in the United States 
suggested that they had a right to royalties on the new processes 
discovered by them. Our answer 5 , says Mortimer, was that they 
were free to demand as high a sum in royalties as they liked. They 
began to wonder and asked us why we were being so generous. 
We replied that the moment they began to claim royalties, we 
should demand the like on the total production of penicillin, 

1 86 



WAR AND GLORY 

since the substance had been discovered in England, and that the 
amount would be exactly twice that asked by them for the use of 
their processes. After that, nothing further was heard about 
royalties/ Not unnaturally, when the war was over, patents were 
taken out and respected for the new processes. But penicillin 
itself remained unpatented and free of all royalties. 

There were certain difficulties connected with the word peni 
cillin , which a number of firms claimed they could use as their 
trade-mark. Fleming had to intervene in person. In 1929 he 
had made of penicillin* a scientific term which was common 
property. No one had a right to monopolize it. The governments 
of the different countries gave their support to this view and the 
question was settled without friction. It did, however, become 
necessary, even in England, to keep a sharp look-out on the way 
in which the word was used. As soon as it got about that a 
miraculous remedy had been discovered, the market was flooded 
with penicillin ointments, penicillin lotions for the eyes, penicillin 
pills and penicillin beauty preparations. Fleming, much amused, 
said to Arthur Mortimer: C I wonder what they re going to invent 
next? I shouldn t wonder if somebody produces a penicillin 
lipstick. That s more than possible, answered Mortimer, and it 
wouldn t be difficult to float: Kiss whom you like, where you like, 
how-jou like. You need fear no tiresome consequences (except marriage] if 
you use our Penicillin Rouged Fleming responded with a barely 
perceptible smile, and said it was a good idea, though it would be 
necessary to apply the Therapeutic Substances Act so as to make 
sure that no improper use was made of it. 

In 1943 the factories began to produce on a big scale, and 
relatively large quantities became available for the armies. 
Major-General Poole, Director of Pathology at the War Office, 
sent two specialists to North Africa. They arrived in Algiers 
immediately after the Allied victory at Cap Bon. They at once 
embarked on a whole series of treatments. The wounds in this 
campaign had been worse than ever and the Tunisian flies had 
done as much damage as the enemy. There was no end to them, 
and, proof even against D.D.T., they infected wounds with every 
type of bacillus, and laid their eggs in them, which produced 
worms. The treatment of such wounds required enormous quanti 
ties of penicillin. 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

It was not long before Florey arrived in Algeria. His experience 
enabled him to give much useful advice to the surgeons. The first 
results had made a tremendous impression on the medical world, 
and there was reason to fear that penicillin would be used for 
every kind of wound and every type of illness. Florey set himself 
energetically to point out that penicillin was not a universal 
panacea. Certain microbes are susceptible to it, others not. The 
first thing to be done in every case was to make a culture of the 
infecting germs and to carry out a test which would show the 
degree of their sensitivity to penicillin. Where the experiment 
showed that the germs were vulnerable, then penicillin could be 
administered and the wound stitched up. The surgeons had to 
reconsider much of their earlier knowledge and methods. Most 
of them took an objective view, but others grew indignant. There 
was still pus in some of the wounds, they said. Some bacteria, the 
pyocyaneus for instance, were not, it is true, affected by penicillin, 
but the phagocytes, freed from the other microbes, were strong 
enough to digest these ultimate assailants. 

Meanwhile, small quantities of penicillin were finding their way 
into the war-factories. Dr Ethel Florey and her colleagues of the 
Birmingham Accident Hospital demonstrated the effectiveness of 
penicillin dressings for hand injuries, which were of such frequent 
occurrence in those surroundings. More than usually spectacular 
were the results obtained in the fight against gonorrhoea, which 
penicillin mastered in twelve hours. This was of capital importance 
in the armies, for the military hospitals were filled with venereal 
cases. 



All of a sudden Glory, that goddess whose movements are un 
predictable and violent, laid hold of the silent Scot. He was over 
whelmed by a mounting tide of letters. His telephone rang from 
morning till night. Ministers, generals, newspapers of every 
country, were continually asking for him. He was a bit surprised, 
at times amused, but on the whole enjoyed it all, and made a point 
of insisting on the part played by Florey and Chain. 

The public and the Press were fascinated by so original and 
modest a character. There was something romantic about the 
story of penicillin: the spore drifting in through a window and 

188 



WAR AND GLORY 

settling on a culture; the discovery brought to completion at the 
very height of the war just when it would be most useful; the 
marvellous reports pouring in from the armies all these things 
helped to create a legend, most of which was true. Honours began 
to rain down on Fleming. In 1 943 he was elected a Fellow of the 
Royal Society (F.R.S.), the oldest and most highly respected of 
all the scientific societies in Great Britain. It had emerged, in 1660, 
from an invisible Oxford College where the philosophers held 
their meetings. Newton had been its President from 1703 to 1727. 
Wright belonged to it. To be made a member of it was fora 
scientist the highest honour which could be conferred upon him by 
his peers. 

His friends at St Mary s, colleagues and students, gave him an 
eighteenth-century silver salver. Handfield-Jones, one of the 
hospital s most eminent surgeons, delivered the speech, which 
accompanied the presentation, in the presence of Sir Almroth 
Wright. There is no member of this community , he said, whom 
it values more highly than Professor Fleming. He has always 
entered into the spirit of this house, even so whole-heartedly as, 
sometimes, to come down from the heights and drink a glass of beer 
at the Fountains. 

Fleming, in reply, said: c ln the course of my life I have had a 
few small successes which h^ve given me pleasure. But I can quite 
honestly say that this is the greatest moment of my life, for you, my 
master, my contemporaries and my pupils, have come together to 
do me honour. He confessed that he found it difficult to speak 
intelligently in his present profoundly emotional state. C I could tell 
you a lot about staphylococci, spirochaetes, and, even, penicillin, 
but the situation is very different when I am, myself, the subject 
under discussion. 

He had, indeed, been terrified all that day at the prospect of 
having to reply to the eloquent Handfield-Jones. While lunching 
with MacLeod, he had told him how frightened he was, and 
MacLeod had reminded him of two famous lines by their 
compatriot, Robert Burns, which would give expression to the 
modesty appropriate to the occasion, and might well serve as a 
peroration. 

Fleming decided to make use of the quotation, and to say: 
What do we really know about ourselves? I am a Scot from 

189 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Ayrshire. One hundred and fifty years ago, a famous Ayrshire 
man, Robert Burns, wrote: 

O wad some Pow r the giftie gie us 
To see oursels as others see us! 

If others see me as I have just been described by Handfield-Jones, 
then I must have seriously underestimated myself. But my 
Scottish upbringing has taught me prudence, and I know 
that on occasions like this, as in obituary notices, flattery is 
permitted. 

But when he came to speak he was so nervous that he used the 
Burns quotation at the wrong moment. While he was speaking, 
it occurred to him that there were three students of St Mary s 
who had become Fellows of the Royal Society, and he was one of 
them. He made an impromptu reference to this. Many years ago, 
he said, there were three students here at St Mary s. All three 
are today Fellows of the Royal Society. Would you ever have 
thought such a thing possible? He then immediately quoted 
Burns s lines, with the result that he appeared to be using the 
lines to imply that the others had not seen how clever he, and the 
other two Fellows, really were. However, those present could, for 
once, see on Fleming s face the emotion he was feeling, and this 
charming mix-up in his speech was received with affectionate 
laughter. 

Alexander Fleming to Ronald Gray: They had their meeting at 
the hospital and presented me with a very beautiful silver 
salver. That was pleasant, but it was not so nice to have to 
sit on a platform and then have to make a speech. I hope I did 
not disgrace myself, but in that matter I am not a good 
judge ... 

The papers seem to have been busy with penicillin. I 
actually had a request from somebody in America for an auto 
graph, and I had a letter of congratulations from the Council 
of my native village, Darvel. The provost of the town had read 
about penicillin when he was in Cairo. On Thursday week I 
am supposed to be broadcasting to Sweden ... Nothing start 
ling happening here. We all just go on. 

190 



WAR AND GLORY 

To another friend, the bacteriologist Compton, who at that 
time was director of a laboratory in Alexandria, he wrote on 
July 3rd, 1943: 

I was naturally pleased at being elected to the Royal 
Society, and it is nice to think that my friends were pleased 
also ... I am very busy at present, trying out my chemothera- 
peutic baby. It seems to be extraordinarily powerful stuff 
and, when enough of it is available, some of the sulphona- 
mides will have to take a back seat. In the last week or two we 
have had two staphylococcal septicaemias snatched from the 
jaws of death, a gonorrhea in which the infection disappeared 
in twenty-four hours, and some rather wonderful cures* by 
local application. I can see it keeping me very busy for the 
next six months or more. 

We are all just waiting for something big to happen, but 
we know just as much or as little as you do about what is 
to happen. Maybe, before you get this, the whole Mediter 
ranean business will be cleared up . . . 

The Missus is well and busy and Robert is at St Mary s as a 
student. We all send our best wishes to you and your family 
and look forward to seeing you when Hitler is finished. 

Yours sincerely 

ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Meanwhile, in the United States, as in England, the spore 
carried by the wind was giving birth to an industry which grew 
with every day that passed. In May 1943 the American Army had 
put in an order for twenty million units. England was preparing 
to spend three million pounds on the production of penicillin. 

In 1944 Dr Coghill, of the Peoria laboratory, presented to 
the American Chemical Society a brilliant report which revealed 
the extraordinary rapidity with which the industrial production 
of penicillin in the United States had been developing: 

Seldom within our memory has any topic so taken the interest 
of the scientific and lay world as has penicillin. For the past two 
years or more it has played Cinderella to the mycologists, 
chemists and engineers of the whole English-speaking world. 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Product of the humble moulds, which until comparatively 
recent years have been something to control rather than to culti 
vate, it has miraculously been clothed with the raiment of 
$20,000,000 worth of plants, and is now attended upon by hun 
dreds of footmen, and the party is proceeding with fanfares 
galore. Penicillin is very patently taking the limelight from its 
older sulfa sisters. Two years ago, those of us who were con 
cerned with promoting the party used to wake up in the middle 
of the night and wonder whether at the stroke of 12.00 this 
lovely vision would flee, leaving us clutching at an empty glass 
slipper the work and strife we had been through, and the 
plants we had built. However, the stroke of 12.00 is now 
upon us, and we find the two stories are digressing, for the 
few dozens of spectacular cases upon which we had originally 
built our hopes have now been augmented by hundreds 
more like them . , . 

This scientist wrote well, and the myth of Cinderella could be 
truly applied to Fleming s adventure. 



192 



The original mould growth of penidllium 
notatum, and Fleming s drawing and notes 
on its antibacterial action on staphylococci 





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(zrfajilJ^-Ctrtt* 



^y^^T J&* /WrM 



jAj&M 





Left: A typical photograph of a colony of peni- 
cillium and its inhibiting effect on the growth of 
various micro-organisms 



Below: Fleming printing photographs of similar 
bacterial plates in the darkroom of the Wright- 
Fleming Institute 



CHAPTER FOURTEEN 

SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

In recent years life for me has become a little difiicult. FLEMING 

THE summer of 1944 in London was the time of the flying- 
bombs. These objects, fired from the Continent, travelled 
with a terrifying rumble, and slowly enough to be seen 
with the naked eye before they reached the end of their trajec 
tory. At St Mary s as soon as the sirens sounded, a watcher went 
up on to the roof, ready to give the alarm if he saw any doodle 
bug making towards the hospital. This he did by setting off a bell. 
A second and a third shrilling meant Danger imminent and Go 
down to the shelter . 

Often at the first warning Fleming and his friend, Professor 
Pannett, would rush up to the roof to watch the doodle-bug 
through their glasses and compare notes on where they thought it 
would fall. One day when Clayden was on watch-duty, he said to 
Fleming: Look sir, this is becoming a bloody farce. You send 
me up here to keep people away, and then you come up yourself. 
You and Professor Pannett are important men and can t easily be 

spared. 

That s all right/ replied Fleming, just say we re carrying out 

an inspection. 

Sometimes it happened that if he was in the laboratory engaged 
on an interesting piece of work, he did not hear the siren. His 
secretary, Mrs Helen Buckley, describes how, one morning, he 
was dictating a difficult letter when the alert went. 

I just looked up, a bit nervously, she says, hoping for the best, 
and then presently the second warning rang and I could hear the 
wretched flying-bomb grumbling away in the distance getting 
louder, and then the third warning rang, and there was the hor 
rible thing coming straight at us. I could see it from my window, 
and the sweat began to drip off my face on to my block. I could 
hardly hold on to my pencil, and I looked at him out of the corner 

193 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

of my eye not a move! Finally, the thing rattled overhead, the 
whole building shook, and the objects on the desk tinkled. When 
it was gone, and the fourth bell rang for "All clear", suddenly the 
Professor came to, out of his deep thought, looked at me, and 
said "Duck!" He had not heard either of the first three warning 
bells, nor the flying-bomb. 3 



The military authorities were beginning to permit the use of 
penicillin for civilian patients. Bernard Shaw s play, The Doctor s 
Dilemma thus became a reality. Each case had to be considered on 
its merits, for if the still far from abundant penicillin were used 
for a sick person who could be cured by other means, there was 
always the risk that there wouldn t be enough available when it 
was a matter of life and death. 

Sometimes the identity of the patient had an influence on the 
decision. Philip Guedalla, the author, for instance, received 
privileged treatment. I am, 5 he said later, one of the animals into 
which the life-saving substance has been injected. I am afraid that 
in my case it was applied as a corpse-reviver at a very late stage, 
but it revived the corpse. If it had not been for the investigation 
which Professor Fleming carried out so brilliantly, I should not be 
here this afternoon. I wish to testify with all humility and thank 
fulness to the treatment which in six weeks can bring a man out of 
the shadow into a state in which he is able to resist the efforts of 
three Government Departments to amend the text of his book. 

From all sides the relatives of sick persons wrote to Fleming 
begging him to help in the cure of all kinds of diseases. He always 
did his best to see whether anything could be done, and never 
failed to answer these hundreds of letters in his own tiny, elegant 
and readable hand. But the simple-mindedness of some of 
these requests saddened him. I have never said that penicillin can 
cure everything. It is the newspapers that have said that. It does 
have an extraordinary effect in certain cases of illness, but none 
in others ... The publicity which he had not sought showed him 
no mercy and, say what he might, it was firmly fixed in the lay 
mind that penicillin was a miraculous panacea*. He knew that, 
like other remedies, it was specific, that is to say that it acted on 
certain microbes and had no action on others. 



SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

That makes things much more difficult for the doctor. No 
doubt he would prefer to have a chemical substance which he 
could use for all cases of infection. But, since that is impossible, he 
should not waste his time, or his patient s, by using the wrong drug 
on the wrong microbe. This means that, from now on, every 
doctor will have to pay a great deal more attention to bacteriology 
than in the past. Penicillin was born in the laboratory, and has 
grown up in close association with the laboratory. Penicillin 
treatment can only satisfactorily be carried out in association 
with a bacteriological laboratory. 9 

He insisted on certain essential ideas. In the first place, penicillin 
could act on the microbes only if it were in contact with them, 
either locally or in the blood stream. Tut the champion in the 
ring face to face with his opponent, and he will do the rest. 5 But it 
was not treating a boil with penicillin merely to give it a surface 
application of penicillin ointment, for that did not establish con 
tact with the centre of infection. Next, care should be taken not to 
use penicillin for minor affections a sore throat, for instance 
because that only encouraged among the microbes the develop 
ment of resistant strains. For the same reason Fleming advised 
doctors not to hesitate, when dealing with severe cases, to use very 
strong doses. There could be no danger, seeing that the product 
was non- toxic, and in this way they could avoid the risk of leaving 
resistant strains in the organism. It was necessary to wage a 
blitzkrieg against microbes. 



Honours were now showering down thick and fast on this man 
who had neither sought nor wanted them, though he felt the same 
pleasure in receiving them as formerly in carrying through some 
experiment better than anybody else or, at shooting, handing in a 
better target. Fame could not spoil him. He was still the same 
simple, approachable individual about whom, very often, cele 
brated foreigners who had come to congratulate him at the 
Institute would say: What! is that the celebrated Fleming? A 
young American army doctor, who sat next to him at a football 
match, spent the whole afternoon trying to find out the name of 
the friendly little man with the spotted bow-tie, who had solemnly 
explained the rules of Rugby to him. He felt sure he had seen 

195 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

him somewhere. Could it have been at the Royal Society of 
Medicine? Driving back to London through the ruins of the 
bombed city, he kept thinking of the smiling professor who in 
these agonizing days could get so excited over a game. To his 
friend, who was at the wheel, he said: Tell me, Dave, who was 
that prof. I was next to? I ve forgotten his name. 

Why, that s Fleming, the bacteriologist at St Mary s the guy 
who discovered penicillin! 

For the young American scientist, who had seen penicillin make 
hay of virulent cases of septicaemia, it was as though a door had 
opened, and a legendary figure appeared suddenly on the thres 
hold. *I went on thinking about that friendly professor, but not as 
formerly. So that, jostled by the crowd, unrecognized and not 
wanting to be recognized, cordial and human, was the man I had 
met, whose name, for the good he had done, would rank higher at 
the Judgment Throne than Hitler would be low for the evils he 
had committed. In the most bitter hour of the war, I had watched 
the English at play, and had felt their greatness. 



In July 1944 the newspapers published the new Honours List. 
The bacteriologist at St Mary s had become Sir Alexander 
Fleming, and his wife, Lady Fleming. She showed her pleasure 
more visibly than he did, not that he wasn t pleased, but he was 
still incapable of showing his feelings. I am almost sorry, he 
said, that I m not Irish, because then I could really have enjoyed 
it all. For many years now, Sareen had shown him how completely 
the Irish can accept the most ordinary compliments, to say nothing 
of well-deserved honours . . . Of course he enjoyed his honours 
everyone could see that: what he meant was, give himself up 
entirely to enjoyment. 

The day before the new Knight Bachelor was to receive the 
accolade from the King at Buckingham Palace, he said to Clayden: 
How about a party tomorrow evening? 

What about the doings? It s difficult to get stuff these days. 

Next door, said Fleming, with a jerk of his cigarette, there are 
five bottles of gin. Lay in some beer, and all the usual what-nots, 
and we ll have a party when I get back. 

The investiture took place in the Palace basement, for security 

196 



SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

reasons, and Sareen was disappointed. When Fleming returned to 
the Institute for tea, he found only eight persons in the library. 
Many of the doctors were absent on duty. It happened to be one 
of the days when Wright came to London for a few hours, and he 
was presiding over the gathering as he had done for the last forty 
years. But he seemed to be in one of his bad moods, slumped 
heavily into an armchair, and did not utter a word until Fleming 
turned up. The total, the lowering, silence continued for a few 
minutes, then, deliberately turning his back on Fleming, Wright 
launched out into a tremendous discourse on the merits of immun 
ization, and the demerits of chemotherapy which, he declared, 
was a heresy bristling with danger for all genuine medical re 
search. 

Dr Hughes, who was sitting opposite Fleming, expected to see 
some sign of amusement or anger on his face. But it remained 
completely impassive. Finally the Old Man had to stop talking 
from sheer lack of breath. Craxton, the secretary of the Institute, 
thinking to ease the tension, asked Sir Almroth to decide a few 
administrative questions. The answer came like a thunderclap: 

Don t bother me with such trivial things! Doctor Fleming will 
deal with them! 

Professor Sir Alexander Fleming held out his hand for the 
papers, got up and left the table without a word. 

Wright returned to the country and the evening was a great 
success. The headquarters staff of the hospital was present in full 
force. Many toasts were drunk to Sir Alexander, and Sir Zachary 
Cope, the great surgeon, who had been a student with Flem , read 
a poem of his own composition: 

To ALEXANDER FLEMING, KNIGHT 

To achieve an outstanding success 

In one s chosen career 
To become a world-famous F.R.S. 

With a merit so clear; 

On a pedestal high to be raised, 

With no fear of fall; 
By the Commons and Lords to be praised, 

To be talked of by all; 

197 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Just to take in a leisurely stride 

The physician s top rank, 
And to dream that Americans vied 

To put cash in one s bank; 

To be praised by the authors who write 

And the poets who sing; 
To be given the title of Knight 

By our Most Gracious King; 

To know well that while still in one s prime 

One has not lived in vain, 
And that none has done more in his time 

To alleviate pain; 

To imagine these Castles in Spain 

Is a dream of one s youth, 
But for you one need hardly explain 

It is less than the truth. 

When all had left. Sir Alexander went up to Clayden, his com 
panion in two wars, and the organizer of this party. Clayden shook 
his hand, and said: Tm damned glad about all this, sir. 

Fleming answered: "That s the nicest thing I ve heard this 
evening. 

There was still some beer left, and the two men spent an hour 
together, talking over old times at Boulogne and Wimereux. It 
had been a memorable occasion. 



Paris was liberated in August 1944. In September it was the 
turn of Brussels. Fleming wrote to his friend, Bordet: 

Inoculation Department, 

St Mary s Hospital, London, W.2 

Sept. 4, 44 
My Dear Professor Bordet, 

It is indeed great news we have heard today, that once more 
the Germans have left Brussels and that you are free of Nazi 
domination. 

198 



SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Every bacteriologist in England hopes that you one of 
the fathers of this science have come through the years of 
sadness with a stout heart and that you will still have years 
of fruitful work in front of you. We rejoice in your long 
deferred freedom. 

With all good wishes 

Yours sincerely 

ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Innumerable invitations poured in upon him, not only from 
his own country but from America and the continent of Europe. 
He was presented with the Freedom of Paddington, in which 
district of London he had spent all his medical life, and in 1 946 
of Darvel, the small Scottish town in which he had been at school. 
Early in 1945 he was elected President of the newly founded 
Society of General Microbiology. In his inaugural address, he 
said: 

Other and more distinguished members were asked to 
assume this presidency, but they were sufficiently strong- 
minded to refuse it. But, true to Scottish tradition never to 
refuse anything, when it came to my turn, I accepted, and I 
was very pleased until the time came when I received a note 
from your Secretary saying that I had to deliver the inaugural 
address ... 

He continued in the same half-serious, half-humorous tone. 
This Society, he said, would not, like many others, be a platform 
from which its members would read papers designed to advance 
their own honour and glory 3 , but a place of meeting where bacteri 
ologists, doctors, industrialists, agricultural specialists, mycologists 
and biochemists could come together to exchange information. A 
discovery of capital importance might well be born of a simple 
conversation. 

I have the impression , writes Dr Clegg, that few people 
realize what a magnificent ambassador for Britain Fleming was 
when he went abroad. Modest to the point of shyness, by no means 
an orator on public occasions, he impressed those he met with his 
simplicity and essential humility. With it all, there was a naive 
schoolboy delight in simple pleasures. 

199 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

* "I hear you are going to the U.S.A.," I said to him when I 
saw him one evening at the Athenaeum. 

* "Yes," he said, "isn t it great? I am going to see the Brooklyn 
Dodgers!"* 

This baseball side interested him as much as all the marvels of 
that gigantic country. 

Before leaving for America, he was, as befitted his new eminence, 
interviewed for the B.B.G. by Bebe Daniels. C I had asked the 
B.B.C. , she says, whether I could have Sir Alexander Fleming. 
Their answer was: "Oh, no! Sir Alexander will never consent to 
speak on the radio!" 

c "All the same, I m going to give him a ring." 

* "Sir Alexander never answers the telephone." 

I thought that rather odd, so I wrote him a letter, and had it 
delivered at the hospital by my secretary, Joan Murray, with strict 
orders to give it to Sir Alexander in person. When she came back 
I asked her: "Well, what happened?" 

c "I was shown in to Sir Alexander, and he said: Why all this 
fuss? Who sent you? Mr Churchill? No/ I answered, c Bebe 
Daniels/ " She left my letter with him, and half an hour later Sir 
Alexander himself rang me up. "Come and see me to morrow, at 
one o clock, at St Mary s." 

I was punctual to the minute. I had expected to find twenty- 
four secretaries, eight guards and I don t know what else. Actually, 
the only person I saw was a technician in a white overall in one of 
the corridors. I asked him: "Where shall I find Sir Alexander 
Fleming?" 

"At the end of the passage: he s making tea." 

*I found him with his sleeves rolled up, making tea over a 
Bunsen burner. "Would you like a cup?" he asked me, and, before 
I could say yes or no, I had a cup in my hand. Then he said: 
"It would interest me to talk on the radio ... Would you like to 
see the original culture?" 

"That d be marvellous!" 

He vanished behind a pile of dishes, found the precious culture, 
and showed it me. Then he asked: "What s the programme? 
What d you want me to say?" 

* "You will be free to say exactly what you like, sir." 

* "I thought that d be your answer ... Here s what IVe pre- 

200 



SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

pared." He read it to me, and it was perfect. Sir Alexander was 
marvellous, and had a delicious sense of humour/ 



In June, July and August 1945 Fleming made a triumphal pro 
gress through the United States. c lt is clear to me , he said in his 
report, that they attach a great deal more importance to penicillin 
in America than in England. John Cameron, of the British 
Mission, was his guide, and asked him to give press conferences, 
radio interviews and public lectures at the various universities, 
because it would be excellent propaganda for Great Britain. 
Fleming acquired a taste for this sort of thing and did it very well. 

He visited the factories which were turning out penicillin, and 
the laboratory at Peoria which had made success possible. He was 
amazed by the tremendous resources available to the Americans. 
At Peoria, where he stayed with Dr Robert D. Coghill, he found a 
veritable museum where all the varieties of penicillium were dis 
played. In his lectures he reminded his audiences that it was 
English scientists who had set this immense industry going, that 
Florey had brought the methods of production to Peoria, and that 
America had then perfected the technique of manufacture, and 
had provided England with penicillin. It was, he pointed out, a 
fine example of mutual aid. 

In New York, the producers of penicillin gave a banquet at the 
Waldorf, c to do honour, said the president, and to express grati 
tude to the one chosen by Providence to discover and to reveal to 
the world the existence and the properties of the most potent 
weapon yet known to man to aid him in his war against disease ... 
We have the closest approximation yet attained to the fulfilment 
of the dream of chemotherapy, a substance incredibly powerful 
against a multitude of bacterial invaders, and incredibly innocuous 
to the tissues of the invaded host. When he called upon Fleming 
to reply, he quoted from the Gospel according to Saint John: 

c "Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool which 
is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. 

c "In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, 
withered, waiting for the moving of the water. 

c "For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool and 
troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the 

201 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had." 

Certainly/ concluded the president, it was an angel who first 
moved the spirit of Sir Alexander Fleming when he saw, for the 
first time, the effect produced on a bacterial culture by a wander 
ing mould, for the pool thus troubled has cured not one sick man 
but myriads of sick men/ 

Sometimes the questions put to him on his visit were of a 
direct nature. On one occasion at Brooklyn, John Smith, the head 
of Pfizer Inc., and at that time the biggest producer of penicillin 
in the world, asked: Why have you never touched the royalties 
which would have enabled you and yours to live as a man 
should who has rendered such services to humanity? 

Fleming s reply was: It never occurred to me. 5 

His visit to die Pfizer laboratories had been well publicized in 
advance and the benches had all been scrubbed and the instru 
ments polished in readiness for his arrival. Looking round him at 
the vast and gleaming surfaces, on which there was not so much as 
a grain of dust, he said: c lf I had been working in these conditions, 
I should never have found penicillin. 

At one of the universities, a professor of chemistry asked him: 
Why didn t you complete your work and purify the product? 5 

Why didn t you do it yourselves? answered Fleming. All the 
necessary information was in the literature. 

At Washington, the press conference irritated this least irritable 
of men. Were you a boxer when you were a kid? ... If not why 
have you gotten a broken nose? ... Who found the dough for your 
studies in London? 

Nothing, as a rule, ever ruffled him. His gift of silence stood him 
in good stead at such moments. When he did not want to answer, 
he grunted and stared into the distance. But on this particular 
day, he suddenly said to Cameron: I ve had about enough of this 
... let s go. And he got up. 

One morning he found two newspaper men waiting on his 
landing at the Biltmore Hotel just as he was going downstairs to 
the coffee-room for breakfast. 

What are you thinking about at this moment? We d like to 
know what a great scientist thinks about when he s going in to 
breakfast. 

Fleming looked at them with a somewhat solemn expression. 



SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

It s curious you should ask me that. It so happens that I am 
thinking about something rather special. 

What?* asked the two journalists in great excitement. 

Well, I was wondering whether I should have one egg or two/ 



John Cameron, himself a Scot, was proud of his companion. He 
liked his quiet, dry humour and his kind heart (at Yale, hearing 
his hostess say that her maid, a Scots girl, was feeling homesick, he 
said to Cameron: c Why shouldn t we go and cheer her up a bit? 9 and 
they did), and his utter lack of self-seeking. 

The great American chemical firms, during his stay in the 
country, collected a hundred thousand dollars which they gave 
him as a token of their gratitude. Fleming said that he could not 
possibly accept it, but that it would make him very happy if that 
enormous sum might be presented to their laboratories at 
St Mary s, to be used for scientific research. This was done, and 
an Alexander Fleming Fund set up, capital and interest being 
put at the disposal of the research- workers. 



The high-spot of his American trip was Commencement-Day 
at Harvard, on which occasion he was given the high honour of a 
Doctor s degree. He had a close bond with this university, which 
was very dear to him: the memory of Boulogne where in 1916 and 
1917 he had a group of Harvard men working with him: 
Dr Rogef Lee, Dr Harvey Gushing, and several others. Six thou 
sand people had gathered in the court where the ceremony was 
held. When Dr Conant, the then President of Harvard, said: It 
is a great honour for me to present Sir Alexander Fleming, the 
discoverer of penicillin, the whole audience rose as one man and 
die ovation lasted for three minutes during which time Fleming 
stood quietly before the microphone, his head slightly bent, 
stealthily smiling at Cameron. When at last it was possible for 
him to make himself heard, he said in his quiet voice: 

I had proposed to tell you a story in which Destiny plays a large 
part. It is perfectly wonderful what a part chance or fate or for 
tune or destiny whatever you like to call it plays in our lives. 
Decisions which we make for no particular reason, or for totally 

203 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

inadequate reasons, or decisions which others make, may have a 
profound influence on our own career. Perhaps we are merely 
pawns moved about on the board of life, thinking foolishly that we 
are deciding our own fate ... Let me take my own career. I was 
born and brought up on a Scottish farm ... 

He went on to explain that he might well have been a farmer, 
had not others his mother and his brothers sent him to 
London: that he might have remained a simple clerk had not a 
small inheritance enabled him to study medicine: that he would 
never have chosen St Mary s had he not been a good swimmer: 
that St Mary s would have turned him out as a simple general 
practitioner like many others but for the fact that Almroth Wright 
had asked him to work in his laboratory. Almroth Wright, 3 he 
added, one of the great men of this world, whose work as a pioneer 
has never been sufficiently recognized ... Then followed the 
story, first of lysozyme, then of penicillin. He paid homage to 
Raistrick, a great chemist 5 , to Florey, to Chain and to their colla 
borators in Oxford, who had made penicillin possible. 

C I have been trying to point out that in our lives chance or for 
tune may have an astonishing influence, and, if I might offer 
advice to the young laboratory worker, it would be this never to 
neglect an extraordinary appearance or happening. It may be 
usually is, in fact a false alarm which leads to nothing, but it 
may on the other hand be the clue provided by fate to lead you to 
some important advance. But I warn you of the danger of first 
sitting and waiting till chance offers something. We must work, 
and work hard. We must know our subject. We must master all 
the technicalities of our craft. Pasteur s often quoted dictum that 
Fortune favours the prepared mind is undoubtedly true, for the 
unprepared mind cannot see the outstretched hand of opportunity. 

There is, then, nothing new in my advice to the young. Work 
hard, work well, do not clutter up the mind too much with pre 
cedents, and be prepared to accept such good fortune as the gods 
offer../ 

When he had finished, he was loudly cheered. An old Harvard 
man, then President of Smith College, hurried up to Roger Lee 
and said: c Roger, Fleming s from Ayrshire: I m an Ayrshire man: 
introduce me. 

Roger Lee did as he was asked. 

204 



SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Professor Neilson said: Tin from Ayrshire, you re from 
Ayrshire. 5 

Aye, said Fleming. 

They shook hands, and that was all. The Scots are a laconic 
race, even when they have crossed the ocean. 

What useful knowledge had he acquired in the course of this 
journey? 

(a) That scientific research in the United States was advancing 
more rapidly than in Europe, because of the status it enjoyed and 
of the resources at its disposal. The cost of laboratories , he said in 
his report, c is insignificant when compared with the results for 
both industry and medicine. 

() That an American, Captain Romansky, had perfected a 
form of delayed-action penicillin (a mixture of salt, calcium and 
penicillin with beeswax and peanut oil). This was of great value, 
since it made possible the presence of a constant quantity of 
penicillin in the patient s body without the necessity of injecting 
every three hours. 

(c) That an extended series of researches was paving the way to 
the discovery of new antibiotics. One of these, streptomycin, 
would quite certainly prove effective. 

John Cameron, who had not left his side during these two 
months, has written: *I was completely under the spell of his 
charm, and our friendship has become for me one of the things 
that make life worth living ... I have learned to know Alec really 
well, and to respect him. 



205 



CHAPTER FIFTEEN 

THE NOBEL PRIZE 

If it be true to say that a great life is a dream of youth realized later, then 
Fleming will be known to history as the happy man who realized his dream. 

DR GRATIA 

TTN September 1945 Fleming went to France as the guest of the 
I French Government It was his first European visit since the 
JLwar had ended. French doctors and research- workers were all 
agog to meet him. Penicillin had reached France during the war 
by way of Spain and Holland. When a French scientist went to 
Madrid in 1942, a Spanish colleague gave him a copy of the 
British Medical Journal containing an article on the extraordinary 
cures it had worked, and a culture. Another culture had come 
through Holland. With these the Army had done its best, but the 
output was too weak to make production on a large scale possible. 
In 1944, after the liberation, the English had provided better 
strains, and under the direction of three officers of the French 
Medical Service Major Broch, Captain Koch and Captain 
Netchk the Military Research Centre had started work. 

The intention had been to give him an impressive welcome. 
He flew from London on September 3rd, and landed at Le Bourget 
at fifteen minutes after noon. Professors Pasteur Vallery-Radot 
and Jacques Trefouel (Director of the Pasteur Institute), as well as 
representatives of the Ministry of Public Health and of the Army, 
were waiting for him on the airfield. 

When he left the aeroplane he saw about fifty journalists armed 
with cameras, and as was his custom, kept well behind the other 
passengers. Suddenly, one of the reporters approached him and 
asked a question. All he could understand was his name and 
nodded his head, thinking he was being asked whether he was he. 
At once, the photographers rushed forward and shot a gentle 
man with an impressive beard who, wrote Fleming, looked a great 
deal more like a scientist than I did . When the officials had 
identified the illustrious traveller the journalists were surprised 

206 



THE NOBEL PRIZE 

and indignant, for the question which he had answered with an 
uncomprehending nod had been: c ls that man with the beard 
really Fleming? Having recovered from their astonishment, how 
ever, they photographed the genuine Fleming and had a good 
laugh over the incident. 

Fleming s diary, September 3rd: Left 10.30. Grossed French 
coast 11.30. Arrived 12.15. Enormous reception. Had to 
broadcast. Driven to Ritz. Lunch. Sacre-Coeur. Pantheon. 
Notre Dame . . . made up speech. 

Tuesday, September 4th: Finished speech. Breakfast (no 
coupons so no butter) ... Gobelins. Saw methods of weaving 
tapestry and carpets ... Presented with small piece of tapestry. 
Lunch with Kaminker (interpreter) . Reception at Academic 
de Medecine. (All stood up.) President and Oldest Member 
made speeches. Then champagne and cakes (like wedding). 
When came away cheering crowd. 

At the Academy of Medicine, he said that it gave him great 
pleasure to think that he was going to belong to that august body. 
*I have been accused of having invented penicillin. No man could 
invent penicillin, for it has been produced from time immemorial 
by a certain mould. No, I did not invent the substance penicillin, 
but I drew people s attention to it, and gave it its name. 

Diary, Wednesday, September ^th: In France only 10,000 Roux 
bottles a day making penicillin. Great chance for England 
to organize at small cost a larger bottle plant or to help with 
advice. Send Raistrick and someone from Boots, Glaxo (who 
can talk French and who is quite familiar with actual bottle 
production) ... Interesting planting device, but growth does 
not cover surface quickly ... Presented with 100,000 units. 



Was to have seen de Gaulle at 1 1.30 but postponed till 4.30. 
Went to Louvre ... received by Director who showed me 
round. Pictures, Sculptures, long gallery, etc. 

1.30. Lunch at Foreign Office. Sat on right of Foreign 
Minister ... Very good lunch. Melon, Sole, Chicken, Salad, 
Cheese, Sweet and Coffee Chablis, Claret, Champagne, 

207 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Brandy. Speeches. Foreign Minister, Minister of Health, 
Pres. of Academy of Med, Then I had to reply. 1066 hun 
dreds of years of war-history. My life-time peace and Allies 
in 2 wars. Scars. Penicillin. Thanks. 

4.30. Went to gen. de Gaulle at 14 Rue St Dominique. 
Trefouel, Vallery-Radot and about 12 others in antechamber. 
Introduced immediately. Conversation 10 min. Then others 
introduced and de Gaulle presented me with Commander of 
the L. of H. (Hung round neck and kissed both cheeks.) Said 
thank you and retired. 5 p.m. Went to Centre de la P&iicil- 
line de Tarmee (near Invalides). On the way Kaminker went 
to shop in Palais Royal and bought Commander of L. of H. 
button ... 

5.75. Dinner with Duhamel at Cafe at end of Boulevard 
St Michel. About 40 people, doctors, literary, political, head 
of trade-unions. Good dinner ... Then had to reply (all trans 
lated by interpreter wonderfully). Got home early midnight. 

At this dinner, at which Georges Duhamel presided, many 
doctors were present, as well as Julien Benda, Paul filuard, 
Claude Morgan, Albert Bayet, Le Corbusier. Duhamel relates 
that when in the course of his speech he said to Fleming: You, 
sir, have gone a step farther than Pasteur/ the British scientist 
exclaimed: But for Pasteur I should be nothing 1 

Diary, September 6th: 10, Reception Pasteur Institute . . . 12.15 
lunch Vallery-Radot opposite Duff-Cooper, Billoux and 
about 40 (sat next Mme Trefouel) . Speech by Vallery-Radot 
(English), Billoux and another. Replied (i) Eulogy of 
Pasteur. (2) Eulogy of Wright. (3) Penicillin. Rules for use. 
Production. Fastness. Thanks. Presented Pasteur Medal. 
2.30. Visited Pasteur Hospital. Dr Martin ... Has nice wife, 
speaks English . . . Saw local treatment of carbuncle very 
painful. Then to Garches. Ramon there but apparently only 
researching not directing. Bearded man does micro-cinema 
only. Saw good one of phagocytosis. Tea at Golf-Club at 
St Cloud. 

Friday, September yth: 5 a.m. Hospital for Sick Children. 

208 



THE NOBEL PRIZE 

Met by Prof. Debre. He gives address and I reply. See 
n of pen. cases. Meningitis good. Pneumo one of 4 died. 
Osteomyelitis good. If abscess opens and evacuates then sewn 
up with needle left in, through which pen. given ... 11. 
Claude Bernard. Dr Laporte (Lemierre away). Lung abs 
cesses treated by injection locally ... Endocarditis few ... 
5.50. Reception Hotel de Ville ... Pres, of Academy of Science 
said going to be a member. Speeches and Reply. 

Saturday, September 8th: ... Delay at aerodrome. Debre 
there to meet me with inhalation apparatus and book on 
painting ... Off at 2 p.m. Home. 

It is interesting to know the impression made by this visit on a 
French doctor, Professor Debre. What struck me in Fleming was 
an extreme intellectual caution. It would not be exactly true to say 
that he was modest. He was fully aware of his fame, and enjoyed 
it. But, more than anything else, he feared going too far in his 
conclusions. He limited the extent of phenomena to what he had 
seen. When we showed him the results obtained in France, thanks 
to penicillin, he paid more, attention to the failures than to the 
miracles. "Tell me some more," he said, "about that osteomye 
litis which you didn t succeed in curing." He wanted to keep his 
feet firmly planted on the ground. 3 

To Mrs Davis, who had been one of the friends of his youth and 
was now living in France, he wrote: c My week in Paris was indeed 
extraordinary ... What a difference from the innocent youth you 
helped to educate and yet I do not believe there is any difference. 
I now meet all sorts of high-ups, but it is not really more inter 
esting than meeting ordinary people they are just ordinary folk, 
except that some of them are a bit conceited. 

The formal reception he had had in Paris was repeated, with 
variations, in Italy, Denmark and Sweden, He became an itin 
erant ambassador of British science. 

To Roger Lee: I am sorry that I can t get used to all this fuss, 
but I suppose I have to put up with it. It is very nice to look 
back on when it is all finished, but at the time I cannot get 
rid of the scared rabbit feeling. 

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THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

If he was scared, he managed to conceal the fact, and took this 
deluge of honours with tranquil dignity. It pleased him to think 
that he was passing, not unsuccessfully, the last and stiffest test of 
all the test of fame. It seemed a far step from the Scottish farm 
and the little lab. to the academic and royal platforms which he 
must now ascend. But all this noise, a bit wearisome though it 
might bd, he looked on as part of the day s work. He knew that he 
had given of his best, that all his life long he had laboured hard 
and conscientiously. It seemed to him but natural that the reward 
should have come at last, and he adapted himself to the new 
routine conscientiously, contentedly, resignedly. 

Among the endless letters which piled in upon him at this time 
none gave him greater pleasure than that written by the mistress 
of his c wee school . It came from Durban, Natal, was signed 
Marion Stirling, and began with these words: 

Dear little Alex, 

Please forgive me but you were about 8 or 9 years of age 
at most when I knew you, a dear little boy with dreamy blue 
eyes . . . This little letter is just to congratulate my dear little 
friend of many moons ago and to tell him that I have 
been following his career and rejoicing in all his wonder 
ful successes. I just have been reading the marvellous story 
of Penicillin and almost feel proprietor. By the way, your 
wonderful injections cured a very delicate little grand-niece 
of mine by name Hazel Stirling. 

Kindest regards to you and just go on as you are doing. I see 
that you were honoured by France a really fine people I 
found them . . . 

In Belgium (November 1945), he beat his own record: three 
honorary degrees in two days, at Brussels, Louvain and Lige. At 
Louvain he delivered a charming speech. The University had 
conferred, after the war, degrees on three British subjects 
Churchill, Montgomery and Fleming. C I did hope that we could 
all three come together. Then I should have been able to listen to a 
politician and a general, both orators, both leaders of men, both 
the idols of their country and deservedly so give addresses, 
and you would have expected little of me, a simple laboratory 

2IO 



THE NOBEL PRIZE 

worker who sits at a bench in a white coat playing with test-tubes 
and microbes. 

But it was not to be. Winston Churchill has come and gone. 
Montgomery has yet to come and I am here alone . . . My occupa 
tion is a simple one. I play with microbes. There are, of course, 
many rules in this play, and a certain amount of knowledge is 
required before you can fully enjoy the game, but, when you have 
acquired knowledge and experience, it is very pleasant to break 
the rules and to be able to find something that nobody had thought 
of../ 

To John Cameron [his guide in the United States]: I had 
better tell you about my adventures ... At the end of Novem 
ber I went to Belgium apparently as a guest of the Belgian 
Government for the [sic] paid my fare and put me up. The 
evening I arrived I dined with our ambassador. The next day 
I lunched with the Prince Regent and then went on to the 
University to receive an Honorary M.D. This was a solo 
performance. There was a crowded auditorium. Then a soli 
tary chair in front where Queen Elisabeth sat. Then, on one 
side there was a throne with two seats where the ambassador 
and myself had to sit. You can imagine me in that 
predicament. 

On October 25th a telegram from Stockholm announced that 
the Nobel Prize for Medicine had been awarded to him, together 
with Chain and Florey. The Nobel Scientific Committee had at 
first suggested that one half should go to Fleming, the remaining 
half to be divided between Sir Howard Florey and Chain. But 
the General Committee decided that a division into three equal 
parts would be fairer. 

On December 6th he flew to Stockholm. 

To John Cameron. Isle of Arran: Arrived 10.30 p.m. ... Bed. 
Off at 8 a.m. to Upsala, and back after dark ... Then official 
engagements with a small break for shopping. (You could buy 
as many Parker 515 as you like in Stockholm and Nylon 
stockings.) Then we had dinner with the British Ambassador 
(I am getting used to that now). Next day the prizegiving. 
Full evening dress with decorations. ( I had great difficulty in 

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THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

tying the Legion of Honour round my neck but it got there 
and it was the only one.) This was at 4.30 p.m. Then with 
fanfares of trumpets we were ushered on to a platform and sit 
ting before us were the whole of the Royal Family and thou 
sands of audience. Then trumpets, orchestra, singing, speeches 
and receiving our awards from the King. After the reward a 
banquet of about 700 where I sat beside the Crown Princess, 
We all had to say a few words (I talked about Fortune), then 
after the banquet we adjourned to a students sing-song and 
dance. Home at 3 a.m. ... Next day the official lecture and 
then dinner with the King in the Palace. Early to bed it 
should have been, but when we got back to our hotel we 
adjourned to the bar and drank Swedish beer for a long time. 
Among us there was an Argentine woman poet who got a 
Nobel Prize but could not stand up to the drink. 

Another honour which delighted him was being given the 
Freedom of Darvel, the small Scottish town where he had been at 
school. Nothing is more pleasant or more rare than to be acclaimed 
as a prophet in one s own country. Fleming had travelled by rail 
from London to Glasgow with his wife, his son Robert, his brother 
Bob, and his sister-in-law. He had invented a new card-game to 
while away the time. Flags were out in the streets of Darvel. The 
Provost and the Councillors were waiting at the town gate, 
with reporters and camera-men. Prayers. Speeches. Numerous 
autographs. A great number of people said they had been at 
school with me ... He could not resist the temptation to have a 
sly dig at his fellow citizens, and said that the mayor of Darvel 
would never have heard of him if he had not happened to go to 
Cairo. *Your Provost had visited Cairo and he had found there 
that I had achieved a certain amount of notoriety, so when he 
came back he proposed to the Burgh Council that they send me a 
letter of congratulation. This gave me very great pleasure, and it 
was the first time I knew that I had been noticed since I left 
Darvel ../ 

All the enthusiasm with which he had been greeted in the course 
of his far-flung travels, all this universal glory, though it had 
failed to change his character, had made his manner not so much 
more affable (he had always been naturally polite), as less brusque. 

212 



THE NOBEL PRIZE 

The necessity of speaking often in public had given him a greater 
ease of manner. His friend Sir Zachary Cope, after hearing him 
deliver a short but witty speech, said to him on the way out: That 
was quite a brilliant effort. Yes, replied Fleming, I know it was/ 
He spoke very well, too, on the day when Lord Webb-Johnson, 
President of the Royal College of Surgeons, presented him with 
the College s Gold Medal, a high and rare distinction which had 
been conferred only twenty times in one hundred and forty-four 
years. The ceremony took place at a dinner attended by members 
of the Royal Family, the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor. 
When the speeches were over, his old colleague, Dr Breen, offered 
him his congratulations. To my surprise, writes Breen, he 
brushed them aside: "Come on, for heaven s sake! Let s go and 
have a game of snooker." 

* "What? Have they got a table here?" I asked. 

* "No, no," said Fleming, "I meant let s go to the Club." 
There was only one club, so far as he was concerned, the 

Chelsea Arts, and, accordingly, we set off in our cars to Old 
Church Street. This was shortly after the war, when formality in 
evening wear had not generally returned. The irruption of Flem 
ing in full rig, with the ribbon of the Legion of Honour round his 
neck, and a multitude of decorations flapping from his coat, into 
the club had the effect of a bombshell. That, however, did not 
prevent us from having our game, and it was the small hours of the 
morning before we left. 

He was still devoted to this club, with its great room painted in 
light green, the two billiard-tables, the bar, and the free and easy 
manners of the painters and sculptors. He went there every even 
ing about six, looked happily round the familiar scene, and played 
snooker, as he played all games, inventing all sorts of extraordin 
ary strokes. Sometimes, to oblige one of the painters, he agreed to 
sit , but never said a word in praise of the portrait. To have done 
so would have run counter to the unwritten code of all Low- 
landers . The club members had been staggered when their 
silent fellow-member had become a great man. When honours 
came to him, several of them offered their congratulations. 

c Oh, that s nothing/ he said, and changed the subject. 

At St Mary s, where for some years the question of Wright s suc 
cessor had been a live issue, Fleming s Nobel Prize settled the 

213 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

question once and for all. In 1946 Wright retired and Fleming, 
unopposed, became Principal of the Institute (this title had super 
seded that of Director). But during one of his absences, Wright 
took the opportunity to announce the various heads of the ser 
vices, as chosen by him, with the result that Fleming never had his 
team, and found himself in an awkward position. He felt this 
deeply, but did not complain. All he said was: That s the way the 
world is made/ 

He had always loved the communal life of a laboratory. Col 
lective work had made it possible for him at any moment to draw 
one of his neighbours attention to the odd appearance of some 
culture or other, and say: Have a look at this: I ll tell you the line 
your research ought to take.* Only with great difficulty was he 
persuaded that, as head man, he must, from now on, live in a 
room apart where he could conduct important and confidential 
conversations. c Now that you re the Principal, Sir Alexander, 
Craxton told him, you must have a lab. to yourself/ He gave in, 
but stubbornly set his face against the room ever being allowed to 
look like an office. No! he said. It shall be a laboratory, and 
nothing but a laboratory. 

For all who were actively engaged in research, he was an ad 
mirable chief. No matter what the work he was doing, a colleague 
had only to knock at his door, which always stood wide open, for 
him to say at once: Yes, come along in! s and to give his full 
attention to the tale of difficulties or discovery. One of his most 
precious qualities was this ability to detach his mind in a split 
second from what had been occupying it, and to go straight to the 
heart of the new problem submitted to him. In three words or so 
he would sort out the tangle and indicate the line to be taken, after 
which he would return to his microscope. A few minutes later 
there would be another knock at the door and another young man 
would immediately receive the same attention. Sometimes he would 
follow it tip with: Now you ve told me about your headache, tell 
me, what d you think of this?* and he would point to something 
that had aroused his interest. He never made his colleagues, 
whether seniors or juniors, feel that they were working under 
him: they were doing a job with him, guided by his experience. 
Dr Ogilvie relates how one day Sir Alexander took him into his 
brother Robert s factory to vaccinate two hundred workmen who 

214 



THE NOBEL PRIZE 

had been laid low with influenza. Though I was only a very 
young assistant/ says Ogilvie, he insisted on doing exactly half 
of the work himself, sterilizing his own syringes and giving the 
inoculations. 5 

He rarely praised a piece of work. His greatest compliment was 
something like: I suppose it s not bad. His approval more often 
took the form of help and support. He would lend a colleague a 
hand in writing up a paper, or would arrange that at a meeting 
of the Pathological Society or some other learned body some 
piece of apparatus invented by one of his young men should be 
demonstrated. When he thought an idea good, he became its 
champion, prepared to fight for it through thick and thin. If he 
thought it bad, he demolished it with one word: Rotten!* and 
that was the last anyone heard of it. 

Many found conversation with him more than difficult. His 
interlocutor would wait for an answer to his question, often only 
to get Hmm! or a groan, or complete silence. There you stood 
with your mouth open, with the conversation suspended between 
heaven and earth, not knowing whether you ought to say some 
thing more or make yourself scarce. At other times he could be 
charming, and always in the most unexpected fashion. 5 He was 
invariably more friendly in his dealings with simple folk than with 
the big- wigs . To a young nurse, who had gone by mistake into 
his office and been terrified by suddenly finding herself face to 
face with the Great Chief, the showed the most exquisite kindness, 
went back with her into the corridor, chatting all the while, showed 
her the way to the laboratory she wanted, and left her in a state of 
adoration. These courtesies were never premeditated, but were 
wholly spontaneous. 

He loved brevity and precision. I was always very enthusiastic 
over donations to our research funds , writes Craxton (the secre 
tary of the Institute). I once reported the receipt of one particular 
gift, and showed him a copy of my proposed acknowledgment, 
which amounted to about 100 words. He glanced at it and with a 
quiet smile, remarked: "That s a nice effort, Craxton, but the gist 
of it is that we are very grateful for his thoughtful donation." 
"Yes," said I, feeling rather pleased. "Then why not keep it at 
that," he said, "and save yourself labour?" " 

215 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

He had a very special admiration for neat-handed technicians. 
Bacteriologists nowadays/ he said, are becoming incapable of 
doing the simplest technical jobs for themselves. 5 All his life long 
he had done them better even than the experts and for this reason 
had gained their respect. He came down like a ton of bricks on any 
research-worker who was too full of his own importance to under 
take an occasional bit of manual labour. 

Much of the research-work done at the Institute was inspired 
or directed by him. He was extraordinarily generous in his 
attitude towards it and refused to put his name to papers which, 
but for him, would have lost the greater part of their value. On 
occasions when he did consent to add his signature, he said: 
Tut my name last, then they ll have to mention all of you. If you 
put it first, they ll say, "Fleming and others," and I don t need 
that. Having succeeded beyond all his expectations, he made a 
point of leaving the limelight to his colleagues. 

Both as scientist and master he was admired by those who 
worked with him. As an administrator he came in for a certain 
amount of criticism. There were some who said that he had a 
horror of wrangling and always chose the line of least resistance, 
Craxton, however, who as secretary of the Institute knew what 
went on behind the scenes, did not share this view. *I remember 
one occasion when, to satisfy the majority, he took a decision 
which was contrary to his own personal feelings. This worried him 
very considerably, and he was an unhappy man for weeks. He 
was not himself again until, at last, he decided to act according to 
the dictates of his own conscience, and reversed the original 
decision. 

Says Dr Brooks: If he held views different from your own, he 
could be a formidable opponent. He never budged once he felt 
quite sure that his course of action was the right one. When he 
was up against too strong an opposition, he reserved judgment. 
If you leave a problem alone for long enough, he said, it will 
solve itself. 

He was never in a hurry. He kept a tight rein on his impulsive 
ness and refused to let himself be influenced by the impulsiveness 
of others. He was careful not to become involved in the quarrels 
and meannesses which inevitably arise when a lot of men are 
working together. You know , says his secretary, Helen Buckley, 

216 



THE NOBEL PRIZE 

how jealous and quarrelsome men of the same profession can be 
when they are all herded under the same roof. But I never saw 
the faintest trace of jealousy in Professor Fleming. It prowled all 
round the place, but never had the slightest effect on him. He was 
by nature noble and by temperament bigger and better than 
the greater part of mankind. Mediocrity in all its forms, all 
pettiness and all the small dishonesties of thought and conduct, 
had no place in him. 

She gives us a glimpse of how he dealt with administrative 
matters. Someone with a grievance would come in and sit down 
beside him. With a cigarette in one corner of his mouth, he would 
grunt out: "Go on." The visitor would say what he had to say. 
The Professor would listen with the greatest attention, all the 
while going on with his own work. Then somebody else would sit 
down on his other side, and put his case. He could do two or three 
things at the same time, and do them well. When the two men 
had had their say, he would sit for a while turning over in his 
mind what he had heard, and then give a reasoned reply to each. 

He was a man , writes Dr Bob May, with whom one could 
discuss personal problems without the slightest hesitation. One 
knew that he would listen sympathetically, and do his level best 
to help. He once insisted that a scientist who had recently been 
suffering from nervous depression should be put on a certain 
committee. It ll do a lot to get him on his feet again. He will see 
that people still have confidence in him. But he concealed this 
kind of helpfulness as though it were something to be ashamed of, 
and from sheer shyness made more than ever a show of being 
dour, reticent and abrupt. 

One reason why he was so little known by those who did not 
work with him was the queer pleasure he took in deliberately 
allowing a distorted picture of himself to be put forward. His 
legend amused him. Every piece of baseless information about 
him published in the newspapers was as carefully pasted up and 
filed as though it were strictly true. His secretary and Dr Hughes 
kept up to date, at his orders, a whole dossier entitled The Fleming 
Myth . He repeated these various imaginary stories more fre 
quently than anybody else, and saw to it that they did not go out 
of circulation. 

At the Institute he never ceased to insist on the fruitfulness of 

217 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

free research. c The research-worker must be at liberty to follow 
wherever a new discovery may lead him . . . Every research- worker 
should have a certain amount of time to himself, so as to be able 
to work out his own ideas without having to give an account of 
them (unless he wants to) to anybody. Momentous things may 
happen in a man s free time/ He had an ironical little story, 
which he loved telling, about a small firm of chemical manu 
facturers the directors of which had taken the momentous step 
of adding a genuine research-worker to the staff. A laboratory was 
arranged for him, divided by a glass partition from the board 
room. For a whole morning the directors watched, with the utmost 
curiosity, the white-coated newcomer at work. Round about 
midday they could contain themselves no longer, but went into 
the laboratory and asked: Well, have you discovered anything? 5 

This thirst for immediate results , said Fleming, is by no means 
uncommon, but it is extremely harmful. Really valuable research 
is a long-term affair. It may well be that nothing of practical 
utility will emerge from a laboratory for years on end. Then, all 
of a sudden, something will turn up very different, perhaps, 
from what was being looked for which will cover the costs of 
the laboratory for a hundred years. He quoted the example of 
Pasteur: People said, why all this fuss about a little dissymmetry 
of crystals? to which one might have answered, like Franklin, 
what does a new-born child amount to? 5 

He went back to France in November 1946 for the fiftieth 
anniversary of Pasteur s death. All the invited scientists were taken 
by special train to Dole. In the train , writes Dr van Heyningen, 
we were joined by a company of young students who had been 
sent, they said, to act as guides and interpreters. They kneeled 
literally kneeled at Fleming s feet, and spoke of him as one of 
the greatest scientists of all time. Heavens! I thought: how 
terribly embarrassing this must be for poor Flem! an ordeal 
if ever there was one let s see how he comes through it I ... Well, 
he came through it with flying colours, and the way in which he 
did so gives, I think, the measure of the man. He was not in the 
least pompous, but just his usual self, and spoke in the truculent 
manner which he sometimes assumed. 5 He described to the 
students the research-work on which he was then engaged and in 
which he was a great deal more interested than he was in his 

218 



THE NOBEL PRIZE 

previous discoveries. He enjoyed their attitude of veneration, but 
without the least hint of pride. He collected decorations as a 
schoolboy collects stamps, delighted whenever an especially rare 
specimen came his way. 

In the course of the press conference, he reminded his listeners 
how Pasteur, in 1876, had observed that a mould from one of his 
cultures destroyed the anthrax bacillus and had intuitively 
foreseen that a substance of the penicillin type might one day be 
used in the treatment of infectious diseases. C I have been in France 
for a week/ he said, making a pilgrimage to all the places where 
the spirit of Louis Pasteur still reigns: Dole, where he was born; 
Arbois, where he spent his youth; Paris, where he is buried. His 
body lies in the Pasteur Institute, but his spirit is everywhere 
throughout the world where serious work is being done in that 
field of microbiology in which he was one of the earliest pioneers. 

He laid the foundations, and laid them so well that they now, 
in the short space of the fifty years since he died, support a 
superstructure more vast and glorious than even the wonderful 
genius of Pasteur could have foreseen.* 

And yet, while all the peoples of the earth were inviting him 
and showering honours on his head, he knew no truer pleasure 
than living with his family in his Suffolk garden. He had the love 
of family in the highest degree. *He was never in better form than 
when they were all together, which happened often , says 
Mrs MacMillan. He adored his son, a doctor to be. His wife, now 
Lady Fleming, was the same simple person she had always been 
faithful to her old friends and not in the least intoxicated by 
success. She knew him so well that his silences, surprising though 
they might sometimes be, no longer worried her. I remember , 
writes Professot" Cruickshank, c a story told about his return home 
after one of his triumphal progresses: how he entered the house, 
put down his suitcase on the floor, and said ... nothing at all! 
His wife announced dinner. He sat down and ate in silence. There 
was no conversation. No doubt he wanted to talk about his trip, 
but a curious feeling of reserve made it impossible for him to 
do so. 3 

Sareen was still running the two houses with almost no help, 
though they were usually overflowing with friends. Life at The 
Dhoon was never lacking in those picturesque and unforeseen 

219 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

incidents which were so dear to Fleming s heart. One Monday 
morning, when he was taking his guests to the station in his car 
after a week-end, he realized that they were late and that his 
friends had missed their train. It ll be all right! he shouted and 
began a mad race with the locomotive to the next station on the 
line. His wretched passengers, flung from side to side, clinging 
to their seats, but fully entering into the fun, urged him forward: 
Go on, Flem! Go on! The car pulled up with a shriek of tyres 
and a scream of brakes in the yard of the next station just as the 
train was running into it. All joined in a cry of Well done, Flem! 
Well done! and made a dash for the nearest carriage. 

These old friendships and these country pleasures were his only 
happiness. He wanted nothing else. When a friend said to him: 
It s a crying scandal that the nation has not recognized what 
penicillin has done for humanity by making you some tangible 
recognition, a hundred thousand pounds, for instance, as was 
done at the end of the war to the victorious generals, he replied: 
What should I do with a hundred thousand pounds? I ve got 
everything I want. 

Never was a man so little spoiled by success. I have often been 
struck , writes Dr Stewart, by the fact that Flem was the living 
incarnation of what, in our day, is a very rare thing a thorough 
bred human-being. There was nothing in him of the mongrel, nor 
of the artificial. Until the very end, in spite of so much travelling, 
in spite of so many solemn receptions, in spite of everything, he 
remained in every way the same young man who, long ago, came 
to London from his native Scotland. 

One day, I made the acquaintance of a French lady who was 
very knowledgeable in the breeding of dogs. When she heard that 
I was a Scot, she told me that she had a great friend who was a 
Scot, too Alexander Fleming. She had met him several years 
earlier, and had liked him, as a man, long before she had known 
that he was an eminent scientist. My reply to this, stupid perhaps, 
but spontaneous, was: "That s because you are fond of thorough 
bred dogs." She looked startled for a moment or two and then said: 
"Do you know, you are perfectly right." * 



220 



CHAPTER SIXTEEN 

ENVOY EXTRAORDINARY 

There is no such thing as a national science, as there is no such thing as a 
national multiplication-table. TGHEKHOV 

IN 1946 the British Council offered, as it had done before the 
war, a number of bursaries to foreign research-workers. Among 
the candidates was a young Greek woman, Dr Amalia Cout- 
souris-Voureka. Her father, a physician who had studied in Paris 
and in Athens, was established in Constantinople up to the time of 
the outbreak of war in 1914, Then he had to flee to Athens leaving 
behind all his belongings, which were confiscated. His daughter, 
Amalia, when herself a medical student, married her brother s 
friend and colleague the architect Manoli Voureka. During the 
Second World War, husband and wife, both of them active 
members of the Greek Resistance, were imprisoned by the 
occupying power. By the time the war ended, their house, the 
architect s studio and his young wife s laboratory had been 
reduced to ruins. Amalia, cut off as she had been because of the 
war from all recent scientific developments, thought of trying to 
go to England for a period of study. She was free from family 
ties. Already for ten years she had to all intents and purposes 
been separated from her husband, though she still had a feeling 
of affection for him. 

The bursaries of the British Council were not awarded by 
competitive examination. The candidates were asked to produce 
diplomas in science and to offer evidence of their studies and their 
war-time record. Those whose names found their way into the 
final list had an interview with the Director (then Steven 
Runciman, the historian). A clear and simple answer to the 
question e Why do you wish to take up scientific research? resulted 
in the young Greek woman being given an excellent report. Since, 
furthermore, her teachers recommended her strongly, she found 
herself at the top of all the candidates. After completing her 
medical studies, she had specialized in bacteriology. 

221 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Until Greece was liberated, nothing had been known in that 
country about penicillin. A number of extravagant rumours were 
current and that was all. It was said that the English were making 
use of a small jelly-fish which had marvellous therapeutic powers. 
The story went round that sick persons were made to swallow it, 
and that, before being digested, it produced a substance which 
had the effect of curing septicaemias. After the war, this new 
myth had been replaced by information of a more serious nature. 
Alivisatos, Amalia s Greek professor, who had himself discovered 
a phenomenon of antibiosis, was well acquainted with, and a 
great admirer of, Fleming s work. He advised the young woman 
to apply for a position in the department presided over by the 
Scottish scientist. Fleming was approached and agreed to take 
her on for a period of six months. On the strength of this, Amalia 
Voureka left for London. 

She appeared for the first time at St Mary s on October ist, 
1946, and was received by Fleming in a tiny office. He asked her 
what subject she wanted to work at. The viruses/ she said. He 
replied that he had no vacancy in the virus section. Would she be 
interested in allergy? His voice was .low, his accent Scottish, 
and the words came through closed lips from one corner of which 
a cigarette depended. The young Greek woman, who did not 
know English very well, failed to understand the word allergy (as 
pronounced by him without its V). 

He noticed her embarrassment, and took it to mean that she 
did not want to study allergy. His face lit up with a kindly 
smile and, in the tone of a man asking a favour, he inquired 
whether she would like to work with him. She at once said c Yes/ 
partly to put an end to this terrifying interview, but also because 
she had been struck by the radiant smile and the sudden gleam in 
his eyes. It seenied to her as though a mask which at first had 
appeared to be impenetrable had, all of a sudden, been dropped, 
revealing an infinite kindliness. Why the mask? she wondered. 
Was it due to reserve, modesty, prudence or shrewdness? 

She realized that, seeing her a little put out, he had wanted to 
help, and was the more grateful because she felt terribly alone in 
a country which was so different from her own. When she had 
come into the room, she had seen a man of small stature with a 
cold, austere expression. But there had been a surprising change. 

222 



ENVOY EXTRAORDINARY 

She saw him now as somebody not at all like that as a person 
whose extraordinary eyes seemed to radiate vitality, intelligence 
and humanity. Was he really, perhaps, two men the genuine and 
the pretended? At this, their very first meeting, she found fascina 
tion in that double personality. 

As soon as she had begun to work with him, Fleming introduced 
her to Sir Almroth Wright, who still came occasionally from the 
country to breathe again the laboratory air. Upon the young 
foreign student the impression he made was almost that of some 
prehistoric mammoth, as much by reason of his size as from the 
fact that she remembered having seen his name in scientific text 
books quoted side by side with those of the giants of the past 
Pasteur, Koch, Ehrlich. She was the first woman to be admitted 
to an organization which was still dominated by Wright s anti- 
feminism. It was not until after the Old Man s death that she 
was allowed to take her meals at the hospital or to be present at 
the famous Library teas. Fleming entrusted one of the younger 
doctors with the duty of instructing the new girF in the special 
technical processes used in the laboratory. These were delicate 
and demanded, as we know, a high degree of dexterity. It was a 
matter of pride with Fleming to show that he was handier than 
anybody else. She came to the conclusion, not without reason, 
that there was a good deal of the small boy in him. 

He frequently called her into the technicians room, and showed 
her how to make micro-pipettes over a Bunsen burner. She found 
this difficult, and he laughed delightedly at her failures. 

It was not long before he suggested that Dr Voureka, Robert 
May and he should embark upon a piece of joint research. He 
stated the subject (a titration of streptomycin), laid down the 
programme of experiments, and himself drew up the report on 
results, insisting, as he almost always did, that his name should 
come last on the list: That ll do you a lot of good, and me no harm. 
This attitude, combined with his simple manners, his kindness, his 
refusal to take himself seriously, the extraordinary quality of his 
intelligence, and his silences, soon made him a hero in the eyes of 
the Greek student. 

It was marvellous to have a master the door of whose room 
stood always open, whom she could see without any difficulty 
whenever she wanted to, no matter what time of day it was. He 

223 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

would swing round in his desk-chair and look at one with an 
expression of lively interest and eager expectation. If one asked 
whether one was being a nuisance, No, no, he would say, 
Tve nothing to do. 3 Then one would tell him about some problem 
on which one had been chewing in vain for days, and back would 
come the answer, without a moment s hesitation, to throw im 
mediate light upon the subject. He could always be relied upon 5 , 
says Dr Ogilvie, c to suggest some aspect which had never occurred 
to you, and an entirely new series of experiments very often on 
matters which were far removed from his habitual preoccupations. 

One day Amalia Voureka heard him discussing with a colleague 
the respective merits of Koch and Pasteur. The colleague preferred 
Koch. 

Tasteur/ he said, e did not carry out a sufficient number of 
adequately controlled experiments/ 

Tasteur, replied Fleming, was a genius. He could observe 
things and, what s more, could measure their value and see their 
implications. Any one of Pasteur s experiments was so decisive that 
it was worth a hundred of anybody else s. The proof of that is 
that he could always repeat it successfully.* 

He, too, I thought, writes Amalia, possesses, like Pasteur, and in 
the highest degree, the art of choosing the crucial experiment and 
of grasping the capital importance of a chance observation. The 
glint in his eyes when he said that showed me that he knew very 
well how close, in this respect, he was to Pasteur. But I reflected, 
zilso, that the two men were wholly different in their attitude to 
themselves. Pasteur, conscious of his genius, was wholly absorbed 
in his research. To interrupt him when he was working was 
looked upon as a crime. For Fleming there was a wide world lying 
beyond the confines of his laboratory. The appearance of a new 
flower in his garden was as interesting to him as the work he 
might be engaged on. Everything was important, but nothing too 
important. There was the same wonder in his eyes as there must 
have been when, as a child, he had looked at the vast stretches of 
the moors, the beauty of the hills, the valleys and the rivers round 
Lochfield. In those days he had felt himself to be an infinitesimal part 
of nature, and from that feeling was born his refusal to indulge in 
self-importance and his dislike of big words. It was almost possible 
to say that he was a genius in spite of himself, and reluctantly. 

224 




Above: Florey, Chain and Fleming at the presentation of the Nobel Prize by the King of Sweden 
Below,- Fleming and Sir Almroth Wright 










The little lab. at The Dhoon. Below is the photograph which Sir Alexander inscribed for Amalia 
Voureka 




ENVOY EXTRAORDINARY 

He was for ever starting off on one of those enormous journeys 
in the course of which he collected degrees, medals and decorations. 
When he got back he would tell Bob May and Amalia Voureka, 
with a twinkle in his eyes, about the comic incidents of the tour. 
The affection and eager attention with which they listened had 
the effect of melting his shyness. When he arrived each morning 
in the laboratory, Amalia loved to hear the sound of his young 
and lively footstep in the passage. His presence gave her a sense 
of serenity, security and happiness. 

Sir Almroth Wright died, after a short illness, on April soth, 
i94y;His going was the source of profound grief to Fleming. Never 
had there been men so different. Fleming , says Dr Philip H. 
Willcox, was an easy man to get on with, and to me he always 
seemed to be unruffled and utterly lacking in fussiness or strained 
nerves. He was calm, easy-going, docile, never detached from the 
world around him or over-engrossed in his work. In this respect 
he was more "worldly" than Sir Almroth Wright, who gave one the 
feeling that he was a man with a gigantic brain, concentrated on 
the world of bacteria, and caring little for sport or gaiety/ That 
is true. Wright was at once an ascetic and an aesthete, an austere, 
self-torturing philosopher who despised luxury in any form, and 
found his only real pleasure in talking with his intellectual equals 
about music, science and poetry. Colebrook in an obituary notice 
recalled that, to his disciples, Wright had been not only a scientist, 
but a friend and a great man. 

We remember his quiet entry into the laboratory for the day s 
work, and his greeting: "Well, friend, what have you won from 
Mother Science today?" We remember the simple austerity of 
his way of life; his great kindliness and generosity shown to 
many, known only to a few; we see him wandering round his 
garden at the week-end, hoe in hand; the characteristic twinkle 
in his eye as he told us of some new discovery about the short 
comings of the female intellect, or of some neyv word he had coined; 
we remember, too, his wonderful gift for conversation, and the 
great store of poetry which enriched his mind throughout a long 
life. 1 

For Fleming, Wright s death marked the end of an epoch. His 
master had sometimes caused him pain, but he remembered only 

1 Obituary Notices qfF.R.S., vol. VI, p. 309, November 1948. 

225 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

the immense debt he owed him. He loved to display to newcomers 
certain technical processes, explaining that they had been invented 
by Wright, with whose memory they would always be closely 
linked. No doubt, realizing that he was now in isolated splendour 
at the summit of the Institute, he felt much as a son may feel 
when, his father having died, it is suddenly borne in on him that 
he is the head of a family and standing at the water-shed of the 
generations. 

When the moment came for Dr Voureka s bursary to be 
renewed, the British Council sent Fleming a long questionnaire 
which greatly amused him. He enjoyed teasing the young woman 
and kept on coming into the laboratory to ask her: How ought I 
to answer this? Are you good at that? I wonder. True to form he 
said these things with a perfectly serious face. It was impossible to 
know whether he was joking or not. But he sent in a eulogistic 
report and the bursary was duly renewed. 

It was at about this time that he received a letter from an 
American (Alsatian by birth), who with remarkable generosity 
acted as a patron of scientific research not only in his own country, 
but in England and France as well. The name of this excellent 
man was Ben May. He had started life working for three dollars a 
week, but later had founded a timber business in Alabama which 
had made him a fortune. He devoted a very large part of his 
profits to helping medical research-workers in America and 
Europe. In November 1947 he wrote to Fleming as follows: 

You do not know me, but I am one of the many who feels 
himself indebted to you, and I should like to show my appreciation 
in something more than words . . . 

*If you ever have a few minutes to spare, you might tell me if 
you think there are many good research-workers in England who 
are hampered by lack of fUnds. Likewise, in France . . . For instance, 
I am not even sure that the Pasteur Institute in Paris has all the 
money it needs . . . Tell me, please, if you have a phase-contrast 
microscope. Please do not hesitate about telling me what you 
want. In doing so, you will be helping me ... I have not found 
any way of taking my money with me, nor do I feel at all certain 
that I shall be able to use it on the other side of the Styx. I 
shall get more fun out of it if I can employ it in the service 
of things that are worth while .., He concluded by offering a 

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ENVOY EXTRAORDINARY 

scholarship for research, the choice of recipient, of course, to be 
left to Fleming. 

Fleming replied that a phase-contrast microscope would be of 
the greatest use to him, and then, without asking Dr Voureka 
for her views and without even telling her what he was doing, 
put her name forward for the scholarship. Only when everything 
was settled did he let her know, advising her to refuse the British 
Council grant in favour of Ben May s offer, which would last for 
a longer time. 

She was now being frequently invited to the Flemings house in 
Chelsea. This quarter of London, so rich in literary associations, as 
well as the charming house, delighted her. She loved its beautiful 
furniture, the rare china, old glass, and odds and ends collected 
with taste, which were displayed in cabinets. Above all, she found 
never-ending amusement in the improvisations contrived by 
Fleming, who equipped his home, as he did his laboratory, with 
anything that came to hand. If, for example, he wanted an electric 
lamp on his desk, he attached it to the ceiling-light in the bedroom 
with a long flex which hung down to the floor and was then, 
without any attempt at concealment, led under the door to where 
he planned to use it. People were always tripping over it. An 
interior-decorator would have thought it hideous, intolerable 
and a scandal. But Fleming was inordinately proud of it, and 
Amalia found the arrangement quite irresistible because no one 
but he in all the world would have thought out, or put up with, 
so primitive a contrivance. 

She sometimes acted as interpreter between the Flemings and 
their numerous foreign visitors. That anyone should have a fluent 
command of three languages seemed to Alec nothing less than a 
miracle. One evening, when she was translating the remarks of a 
Greek from Spain, the latter asked whether he might have a 
signed photograph of Fleming to take home with him. She took 
this opportunity to ask for one for herself. Fleming pretended not 
to have heard. His wife intervened: Give her one of your photos, 
Alec.* He said nothing. Sareen leaned across to Amalia and, with 
great sweetness, said that her husband had often spoken about her. 
He looked embarrassed, but she insisted: Tell her what you have 
told me/ He grunted, then abruptly took a photograph, signed it 
and gave it to Amalia. This portrait she kept beside her bed. Her 

227 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

friends used to pull her leg about him. "Is that that great Viking 
with the curly golden hair? 5 But the jokes glanced off her: she 
had as much affection as admiration for her master. 

Meanwhile, invitations kept on coming from all over the world. 
In 1948 he returned to Paris to be made a member of the Academic 
Septentrionale, of which Georges Huisman was President. 

Flemings diary, Friday, April 2yd, 1948: No troubles, 
customs or other, at Le Bourget. Met by Monseigneur Detrez 
and wife of President of Acad. Sept. By car to Lutetia ... 
Went for walk along the river ... A lot of nice things in the 
shops, especially antiques, but prices very high ... Taxi to 
Restaurant Louis XIV in Place des Victoires. Driver could 
not find restaurant which is a small one on a corner . . . Went 
upstairs and found about 15 of the Academy folk: churchmen, 
literary lights, but no doctors. Excellent dinner . . . Had to 
make short speech ... Managed to put a dramatist in his 
place: he had read one of my speeches and pretended he knew 
all about me. I told him he was flattering himself, because 
even my wife, after 30 years, hadn t managed to do that. 

Saturday, April 24th: Walked for an hour in Luxembourg 
Gardens. Very gay. Wall-flowers, alyssum and pansies. 
Chestnuts in full bloom. Taken to Etudes Carmelitaines, Rue 
Scheffer. Academicians and Carmelites. Paul Claud el old 
and deaf. Admiral d Argenlieu, head of French Navy in 
England, and now a moi^k. Sat between Huisman (President) 
and the admiral, who spoke English. Enormous lunch. Began 
1.15, ended 5 o clock. Speeches galore. Many nice things 
about me, but did not understand most of them . . . 

During his stay in Paris he sat for a sculptor, Baron, who was 
to do a medal of him for the French Mint. Some days later he 
received a letter from Baron enclosing some photographs of the 
medal. 

Showed to (i) Hughes: remark tough. 

(2) MacMillan: remark prize-fighter. 

(3) Mme Voureka: remark wild. 

(4) Jennings: remark very good. 

(5) S. M. F. [Sarah Marion Fleming] : remark very 

good. 

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ENVOY EXTRAORDINARY 

Also letter from Director of Mint asking permission to issue 
the medal. Replied yes 9 . 

At the end of May 1948 Fleming and his wife set off for Madrid, 
as the result of a very warm invitation. Two great scientists, 
Bustinza (of Madrid) and Trias (of Barcelona), had arranged the 
tour, which took on the appearance of an apotheosis. Everywhere 
the deluge of honours which now formed part of his daily life 
descended upon him: university degrees, honorary membership of 
academies in Barcelona no less than in Madrid, decorations and 
receptions. Never before had he aroused so much popular enthu 
siasm, nor so much gratitude from sick persons who had owed 
their lives to penicillin. They knelt before him, kissed his hands, 
gave him presents. If his wife Sareen had not been taken so ill in 
Madrid that she had to have a nurse, the memory of this trip 
would have been enchanting. Fleming s diary shows him, as 
always, interested in everything, and happy. 

Barcelona: Thursday, May 2?tk 9 1948: To the flower-market 
where we walked about 300 yards. Recognized. Much 
clapping. Stall-keepers gave us roses and carnations ... To 
Town Hall to see Corpus Christi procession. Mayor and 
Councillors in evening-dress. Balcony reserved for us, and, 
when we appeared, cheering and clapping most embarrass 
ing ... After procession more clapping and cheering all the 
way back to hotel. Impression that I was Winston or Princess 
Elizabeth. New experience. In our rooms enormous wreathes 
of flowers . . . Consul-General says he is very pleased I came 
as it will do a great deal to help relations. It seems to me I am 
more an ambassador than a lecturer on medicine . . . Vizconde 
de Guell, art patron (looks like Edward VII). 

May 2Qth: Interviewed by important newspaper. Had to 
answer questions like c ls Bogomoletz s serum any good? ... 
c Will there be another war? 5 ... Why is Spanish science 
backward? ... If I were a more talkative person I should soon 
be in trouble. At n, started for Montserrat ... Meal served 
by monks in silence, except for a voice chanting something in 
Latin the whole time. Prior introduced an old monk to me 
who had been cured by penicillin (of septicaemia) ... Sherry, 

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THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

coffee, benedictine. This benedictine made at the monastery: 
slightly different from the ordinary. Happened to have in my 
pocket a culture of penicillin mounted in a locket. Gave it to 
the Prior. He was delighted and put it among the monastery 
treasures (with a description which I had to write) ... For 
dinner to a small restaurant across the road. Proprietor 
refused any payment. I seem to be a hero in Spain. 

May 30th: Bull-fight. Photographed with three toreadors. On 
taking my seat received another ovation from all round 
arena 20,000 people (mass hysteria) ... Back to bed about 
3 a.m. 

The number of presents increased. A bootmaker, saved by 
penicillin, gave two pairs of shoes, one in crocodile for Fleming, 
the other in black and gold for Lady Fleming; a tailor, two suits; 
a Spanish woman, miraculously cured, a sable stole; a grateful 
optician, a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles. For a hunter of junk- 
shops it was a marvellous opportunity. But he had to give thou 
sands of autographs, make a great many speeches (which an 
interpreter translated into Spanish), lecture at the hospital on the 
use of penicillin, and dine in the open air at La Rosalid, where 
Queen Marie-Jos^ of Italy had expressed the wish to meet him. 

Seville: Reception by the Mayor. A swarm of beautiful 
young girls did some Andalusian dances very gracefully. 
Curious throaty chants of oriental type. Elected Honorary 
President of Medical Society of Seville. In evening-dress at 
1 1.30 a.m. for Academy ceremony. Crowd. God Save the King. 
Presidential speech. Gold Medal. Then my lecture on the 
story of penicillin read in Spanish. Lasted three-quarters of 
an hour ... I went to sleep, or almost. 

At Seville, he was given, among other things, a sombrero which 
was too small for him. A larger one had to be found. 

Toledo: Greco. Goya ... By car to the Maranon house. 
View over Toledo. Magnificent house and charming family. 
Lunch outside. Very pleasant. Today s presents: a paper-knife 
(Toledo steel) : a doll: an enormous cigar: some books, includ 
ing Scott s Poems. 

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ENVOY EXTRAORDINARY 

At last, after Cordoba and Xeres, back to Madrid. The capital 
had obviously set itself to go one better than Barcelona. Many 
flowers. Royal suite at the Ritz Hotel. Dinner at the golf club, 
with the Duke of Alba, who was charming, and claimed to have 
dined with me in Oxford but he s wrong about that*. 

He was decorated with the Grand Cross of Alphonso the Wise, 
and given a Doctor s degree by the University of Madrid, where 
he had to put on a blue hood and gown, the whole topped by a 
curious blue cap. A ring was placed on his finger, and he was 
given a pair of white gloves. He mounted the rostrum, preceded 
by the senior student, and delivered a speech which his friend Bus- 
tinza translated into Spanish. When, after his return, Dr Hughes 
asked him which of all his Doctor s degrees had pleased him 
most, he replied, without a moment s hesitation: Madrid ... they 
gave me my hood and gown. 

Taken all in all, it had been an Arabian Nights journey, but 
very exhausting. Neither of them had had a moment s respite. His 
wife, already a sick woman when they started, had had to take 
to her bed in Madrid. They returned to England by air on June 
1 4th, and in the course of the next few months Sareen s condition 
became increasingly serious. She could no longer go with her 
husband on the journeys he still had to make as a result of promises 
already given. 

One very great pleasure for him at this time was the presenta 
tion of the Freedom of Chelsea. In his speech, he spoke of 
Whistler, Turner and his beloved Arts Club: 4 It would be im 
possible to imagine Chelsea without its artists . . . Art, using that 
word in its widest sense, is one of the genuinely important things. 
Prime Ministers and Chancellors of the Exchequer may be 
prominent figures for a while, but when they pass from the stage, 
they are, nearly all of them, forgotten. Only the artist is immortal. 
Fleming was worried at that time about the future of Chelsea 
artists. He feared that in the post-war building schemes for Chelsea 
the need for studios would be neglected. He therefore took this 
opportunity of reminding Chelsea what it owed to the artists. 

In 1949 he was made a member of the Pontifical Academy of 
Sciences and went to Rome, where he was received in audience 
by the Pope. Scarcely was he home again than he sailed in the 
Queen Elizabeth for the United States where he had promised to be 

231 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

present at the inauguration of the Oklahoma Foundation for 
medical research. He had thought at first of refusing this invita 
tion, pleading his increasing age and the distance of Oklahoma 
City, but on further consideration decided that it was his duty to 
go. He did not regret having done so, for he met c his old penicillin 
friends , was dubbed kiowa by an Indian chief in full regalia, and 
made to the Foundation one of his best speeches: 

The research- worker is familiar with disappointment the 
weary months spent in following the wrong road, the many 
failures. But even failures have their uses, for, properly 
analysed, they may lead him to success. For the man engaged 
in research there is no joy equal to that of discovery, no 
matter how unimportant it may be. That is what keeps him 
going ... 

He spoke of the excessive material perfection sometimes to be 
found in scientific establishments. This was not the first time he 
had expressed his disdain of unnecessary adornments and marble 
palaces. 

If a worker who has been used to an ordinary laboratory 
is transplanted to a marble palace, one of two things will 
happen: either he will conquer the marble palace, or the 
marble palace will conquer him. If he wins, the palace be 
comes a workshop and takes on the appearance of an ordinary 
laboratory. If the palace wins, then he is lost. 

We have only to think of the marvellous work done by 
Pasteur as a young man, in a Paris attic which was so hot in 
summer that he could not stay in it. I, myself, witnessed what, 
in the early years of this century, was done by Almroth Wright 
and his team in two small rooms at St Mary s Hospital work 
which drew to his tiny laboratory bacteriologists from New 
York and Colorado, from California, from Oregon, from 
Canada. My own laboratory has been described in an 
American paper as looking like the back-room of an old- 
fashioned drug-store but I would not have exchanged it 
for the largest and most luxurious of installations ... I have 
known research-workers reduced to impotence by apparatus 
so fine and elaborate that they spent all their time playing 
with a plethora of ingenious mechanical devices. The machine 

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ENVOY EXTRAORDINARY 

conquered the man, instead of the man conquering the 
machine. 

In other words, what the research-worker needs is equipment 
which is effective rather than splendid. But I should hate you to 
think , he added, that I decry good equipment. The different 
pieces of laboratory apparatus are, for the research-worker, the 
tools of his trade, and a good worker should have good tools. 

As an orator he had made great progress and now his speeches, 
simple and solidly constructed, were very effective. They sparkled 
with little flashes of the true Fleming humour. One sometimes 
finds , he said on one occasion, c what one is not looking for. For 
instance, the technician who set out to find a way to synchronize 
the rate of fire of a machine-gun with the revolutions of an air 
screw discovered an excellent way of imitating the lowing of a 
cow. And again: During my forty-eight years at St Mary s 
Hospital, I had built up the useful reputation of being the world s 
worst after-dinner speaker, so I was never asked, to talk. A year or 
two ago, the Observer made me the subject of a "Profile" in which 
they said that I was too fond of the truth to be a good after-dinner 
speaker. I commend this statement to some of the brilliant 
speakers here. 

There is a story current in Oklahoma to the effect that an old 
lady, who had contributed generously to the Foundation, asked 
him to what he attributed his success. He is said to have replied: 
C I can only suppose that God wanted penicillin, and that that was 
His reason for creating Alexander Fleming. When this story was 
told him, he made no comment, but, since he did not include it 
in the Fleming Myth dossier, it is probably true. 

On his way home he visited several laboratories and was 
introduced to aureomycin and chloromycetin. The family of 
antibiotics was growing. 

When he reached London, he found his wife more seriously ill 
than when he had left. To his friends at the hospital he said sadly: 
She s not going to recover. When Mrs MacMillan called for news, 
he opened the door to her. I shall never forget , she writes, the 
look on his face when he said, "And the most horrible thing about 
it is that penicillin can do nothing for her . . . When John died it 
had not been perfected: now it has, but it is useless in Sareen s 

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THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

case." He showed the utmost devotion in nursing his wife. She 
died on October agth, 1949. Her death was a terrible shock to 
him. To his old and dear friend, Dr Young, he said: My life is 
broken. Sareen had been his companion for thirty-four years. She 
had been his support in difficult times, she had helped with all his 
projects in their country home, and she was his mainstay in success 
when, at long last, fame had come to him. 

Immediately after the funeral he went to the hospital and, as 
usual, took his accustomed place at the head of the table when 
tea-time came. He did not speak of his grief, but looked twenty 
years older. His eyes were red. For several weeks he was just a 
pathetic old man with trembling hands. He worked longer hours 
than ever at the laboratory, and kept his door shut, an unusual 
thing with him. 

He still went every evening to the Chelsea Arts Club and stayed 
there later than had been his custom. At home in the empty house 
he felt solitary and at a loss. His son was finishing his hospital 
training in London. Sareen s twin sister Elizabeth, John Fleming s 
widow, had a flat on the upper floor. The two women had been 
much alike in appearance, but very different in temperament. 
Sareen, before her illness, was gay, exuberant and full of life. 
Elizabeth, since the death of her husband, had become melan 
cholic. After the loss of her twin sister, she had long spells of 
depression. The loyal Fleming asked her to take her meals with 
him. For some time, he often had the company of his son Robert, 
who lived at home, and of a young cousin, Harold Montgomery, 
also a student at St Mary s. But later Robert left home to live in 
the hospital where he worked and, in 1951, went with the Army 
overseas., Then Sir Alexander became very lonely. At week-ends, 
he visited Radlett where his brother Robert and his sister-in-law 
welcomed him. Yet he spent many evenings in the company of an 
old and ailing woman. Fortunately for him, there was Alice 
Marshall, young, intelligent and devoted, who had kept house for 
him since Sareen s illness. She did everything in her power to 
lighten the atmosphere and to make life for him at home as smooth 
and as tolerable as possible. 

Work was his only refuge. For some time now he had been 
studying, with Dr Voureka, Dr Hughes and Dr Kramer, the action 
of penicillin on a certain microbe, proteus vulgaris. This proteus, 



ENVOY EXTRAORDINARY 

when cultivated in a medium containing a small quantity of 
penicillin, went through the most curious changes and assumed 
fantastic forms. It is equipped with flagella or wing-like filaments 
which seem to enable it to move about. In the normal proteus these 
filaments cannot be seen, but in the "monstrous forms , and under 
the phase-contrast microscope, they were clearly visible. Fleming 
studied their movements with an interest the more lively because 
a well-known bacteriologist, Pijper, thought he had proved that 
these filaments were not a means of locomotion, but threads of 
mucus which came from the creatures bodies as a result of 
movement. 

One day he showed Dr Voureka, under the microscope, a 
remarkable variant of the proteus which seemed to be furnished 
with large, spread wings, which it agitated violently in an attempt 
to get out of a corner in which it had become wedged. After a few 
seconds the movement stopped. Fleming, annoyed by this cessa 
tion, exhorted the proteus to move: Get a move on, can t you! 3 
Naturally, there was no response. At that moment someone called 
him from a near-by room, and he went out of the laboratory, 
saying: Make it move! 

It suddenly occurred to her to agitate the mirror which served 
to refract the light on to the preparation. To her great joy, as 
soon as the proteus was touched by the light-ray, it immediately 
responded to the stimulus. By passing her hand up and down 
between the mirror and the source of illumination, she could make 
it beat its wings, or stop it, at will. 

When Fleming came back, he was delighted by this small 
observation. For weeks he played with the new phenomenon, noting 
the length of time occupied by the movements and the period of 
rest after exhaustion. Somebody had given him a tape-recorder, 
which he used in place of an assistant. He counted out loud, 
described what he saw, and his words were recorded by the 
apparatus. After Sareen s death, during the first forlorn months 
of his loneliness, when he used to shut himself away in his labora 
tory, people passing the door could hear his hoarse, tired voice 
counting. For those who knew him well and loved him, there 
was something disturbing in the sound. 

But soon he began once more to feel the need to share his 
observations with his colleagues. One day, Dr Stewart, a new- 

235 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

coiner to the Institute, suddenly saw his chief s face looking at 
him through a chink of the half-open door. 

Are you doing anything you can t leave for a moment? > 

No, sir; certainly not, sir/ 

D you know anything about proteusT 

Not much, sir/ 

Well, come into the laboratory. 5 

Stewart did so and saw three microscopes set up, with filters 
between them and the several sources of illumination. Fleming 
passed rapidly from one microscope to another, moving the filters, 
observing the effect, and dictating his comments to the tape- 
recorder. He asked Stewart to help him, but very soon the whole 
business , writes the doctor, had turned into something like a 
clown-act in a circus. We jumped from microscope to microscope, 
often colliding. The bacilli moved and stopped, went up and 
down, while we said "Start! Stop! In! Out! Up! Down!" 
and so absorbed were we that we did not even notice the appear 
ance of a distinguished visitor, who, opening the door and seeing 
two men running round and shouting, must have thought that 
Fleming and his assistant were both a bit "touched" ...* 

Fleming to Todd: For the last six months, what little work I 
have been able to do has been with a phase-contrast micro 
scope, watching little slide-cultures ofproteus in penicillin agar. 
They roll themselves up like watch-springs, and go round and 
round like Catherine-wheels all day long in the same field of 
the microscope. We can time their movements, stop them, 
start them, and observe how their flagella move. They 
respond beautifully to stimuli, and I am beginning to believe 
that even a lowly bacterium has some primitive nervous 
system. 

In September 1949 the generous American, Ben May, pre 
sented the Institute with two marvellous pieces of apparatus, so 
as to help Dr Voureka to complete the work she was engaged upon 
a micromanipulator and a microforge, devised by a French 
scientist, Dr de Fonbrune. These made it possible to handle 
single microbes with instruments invisible to the naked eye. Dr Vou 
reka spoke French perfectly, and Fleming sent her to take a course 
in their use at the Pasteur Institute. 

236 



ENVOY EXTRAORDINARY 

Dr Voureka to Ben May, September 14^ 1949: I quite under 
stand your enthusiasm for the French micromanipulator. It 
is just marvellous. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that we 
can really make these little instruments and perform these 
operations. Monsieur de Fonbrune is being very helpful. He 
deals with me from 2 till 7 every day, showing me how to use 
his fantastic machinery, and isolating my bacteria. When I 
think of the time when I used to say c if only I could pick this 
one up 3 and now I see this happening, in no time, I think 
I am dreaming ... I agree with you that the range and deli 
cacy of the operations one can do with the French equipment 
is far beyond the possibilities other equipments offer . . . 

Ben May to Sir Alexander Fleming: Dr Fonbrune told me that 
Dr Voureka was different from any other woman scientist he 
had met: besides being a scientist, he says, she is a person 
and a personality. 

Dr Voureka to" Ben May, November $th, 1949: I don t know 
whether you heard of Lady Fleming s death. The whole story- 
has been most distressing to Sir Alexander. So much sorrow 
should certainly not come to a man who has given so much 
of value to humanity. He is being very brave, working as 
always. Yesterday, at long last, the equipment arrived. 
To my very great delight Sir Alexander en est emerveille\ He 
thinks it a very ingenious and marvellous machine. I am glad 
in a way that it arrived now, because it gave him a distraction 
from his worries ... 

Fortunately, he still retained his taste for lovely toys. In spite of 
his profession of faith at Oklahoma City, the phase-contrast 
microscope, the micromanipulator and the tape-recorder gave 
him great joy. 

In addition to his research-work, travelling did much to help 
him to recover from the grievous shock he had had. He spent quite 
a considerable part of his life at that time in aeroplanes and liners. 
January 1950: Dublin. February: Leeds, to receive the Addingham 
Medal. March: To the United States in the Queen Mary. June: 
Milan, to give a lecture on the new antibiotics. August: Brazil. 
September: Rome. November: Brussels, where he had to make a 

337 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

speech in the name of the foreign scientists on the occasion of the 
eightieth birthday of the Belgian bacteriologist, Jules Bordet, for 
whom he felt a great affection. To give pleasure to Bordet, he 
wished to speak in French. At his request, Amalia translated and 
recorded the speech, and this busy man spent hours in learning it 
by heart, and trying to pronounce each word in an intelligible 
manner. At the University of Brussels, in the presence of Queen 
Elisabeth, he delivered his oration, and praised in Bordet the 
qualities he most admired: 

The essence of Bordet s work is simplicity simplicity of 
attitude and simplicity of technique . * . He has always shown 
himself to be very sceptical of fancy theories insufficiently 
supported by experimental facts. He has worked away and 
produced new facts which have helped us all. It is not given 
to everybody to be world-famous in science for so long. But 
it has not made any difference to Jules Bordet. He is still the 
simple investigator he always was. Bordet is, by nationality, 
a Belgian, but medicine is not national. There is, fortunately, 
a free exchange of medical knowledge, and Jules Bordet is 
international. 

Sometimes, when he was in London, he invited his little G eek 
fiend to go with him to the Royal Academy banquet, or to other 
dinners and receptions. Since the house in which she was living 
was on the way from the laboratory to Danvers Street, he took 
her home every evening in his car. He left St Mary s at half-past 
five, dropped her, and went on to the Chelsea Arts Club. They 
both felt happy when they were together, and talked of every 
thing under the sun with complete mutual understanding, 33 they 
drove through Hyde Park. 

In mid-summer 1950 he took her to a dinner given by the 
Worshipful Company of Dyers in the City. This very ancient 
company owns one-third of the swans on the Thames, one-third 
belonging to the Crown, and the remaining third to the Vintners 
Company. Each year, at a solemn banquet, a number of young 
cygnets are presented on a silver dish. Amalia saw, with him, 
for the first time, at the mid-summer ladies night dinner, the 
ceremony of the loving-cup which is passed up and down the tables. 
She found it all very novel and charming. It was long since she 

238 



ENVOY EXTRAORDINARY 

had seen Fleming so gay. He seemed to be happy at having her 
for partner. 

In December, while Fleming was away in Stockholm for a 
meeting of the Nobel Institute, she went back to Greece for the 
Christmas holidays. 

Dr Voureka to Ben May: My only regret is that I shall be 
parted from my very dear laboratory at St Mary s. 

During this holiday absence she was asked whether she would 
accept the post of head of the laboratory at the Evangelismos 
Hospital in Athens. This was the most important hospital in the 
city and the one in which she had done part of her training. The 
idea of returning to it as the head of a department was tempting. 
She wrote to Fleming to tell him of the proposal. He replied as 
follows: 

January 23rd, 1951 

Dear Dr Voureka, 

I was very glad to get your letter and to hear of your 

adventures. Congratulations on your new research Institute. 

I knew that you would find a research job one day, but a whole 

Institute is much better. 

You will have got the Lancet by this time. They have done 

you well. I have sent a copy to Ben May to show him that he 

is getting his money s worth. 

Your bench still awaits you. xr * , 

7 Yours sincerely, 

ALEXANDER FLEMING 

The Lancet had just published a report on the work done by 
Dr Amalia Voureka on the mutations of certain microbes. This 
also formed the subject of the editorial. She was faintly dis 
appointed by this letter. Not a word of advice. She thought she 
could detect a note of irony in his reference to a whole Institute . 
She had spoken only of a laboratory. And why your bench still 
awaits you ? Was it an expression of regret, or a desire to keep her? 
She thought so for a moment, then reproached herself for an 
excess of imagination. In any case, the final appointment depended, 
in Greece, on the decision of the council, which would not be in 
session for some time. While waiting for it, she returned to 
London and went on with her work. 

239 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

In April 1951 a UNESCO congress took him to Pakistan. In 
Karachi, as always, he was asked to speak in public. The subject 
was given to him: "How the children of Pakistan can become the 
research-workers of tomorrow . He rapidly jotted down a few 
notes: 

All of us, in our ordinary pursuits, can do research, and 
valuable research, by continual and critical observation. If 
something unusual happens, we should think about it and try 
to find out what it means . . . There can be little doubt that the 
future of humanity depends greatly on the freedom of the 
researcher to pursue his own line of thought. It is not an 
unreasonable ambition in a research-worker that he should 
become famous, but the man who undertakes research with 
the ultimate aim of wealth or power is in the wrong place ... 
Not all Pakistan children can become research-workers, but, 
with care, especially in their early youth, many can reach 
that proud dignity. 

He visited mosques and rose-gardens; he flew as far as the 
Afghan frontier. Garlands of flowers were hung round his neck. 
He was photographed riding on a camel. But his greatest pleasure 
was dining with old comrades of the London Scottish, and being 
accompanied to the airport, when he left, by pipers. 



240 



CHAPTER SEVENTEEN 

THE SILENCES OF PROFESSOR FLEMING 

We spoke to each other about each other 
Though neither of us spoke. EMILY DICKINSON 

ON his return in June 1951 he invited Amalia Voureka, for 
the first time, to spend a week-end at Barton Mills. She was 
enchanted by the beauty of the old village, by the flowers, 
the river and the peace of the countryside. He showed her the 
garden-room which he had turned into a laboratory and furnished 
with dilapidated cupboards and seatless chairs picked up for two 
or three shillings at local fairs. Superb and costly pieces of 
apparatus, presented to him by admirers, stood on an assortment 
of old tables cheek by jo\vl with other odds and ends of equipment 
which he had constructed from old biscuit-tins and lengths of 
wire. On the wooden walls prints of birds had been glued and 
covered with varnish. In one corner a number of fishing-rods 
stood with their tops leaning against one of the rafters of the 
ceiling. There was a pile of goloshes and gum-boots by the door. 
The sterilizer was heated by means of an electric flex from the 
house. Through the large windows one could see the multi 
coloured garden of The Dhoon. The whole place presented a 
faithful picture of the man who had conceived and made it. 

His visitor immediately fell in love with the quiet and charming 
house. She told Fleming that, should he ever decide to retire there, 
she would apply for the position of lab.-boy-cum-cook. He teased 
her about the far more brilliant post which she had just obtained 
(a unanimous vote of the Council of Management had just 
confirmed her appointment to the Evangelismos Hospital) and 
said: I m afraid that would be beneath your dignity. But she, 
secretly to herself, was thinking that she would willingly give up 
any post to work here, in this tiny laboratory in a garden, with a 
man on whom she felt she could rely in any circumstances. The 
peace of it all seemed to her like Paradise. 

He had planned to spend the whole of August at The Dhoon, 

241 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

and suggested that she should stay for a week. She said she had 
a number of experiments on hand. Then, bring your cultures 
down here/ he replied, you can work in my laboratory. 5 She set 
off with him in the car and had seven marvellous days. She 
cleaned the little lab. something nobody had ever done before 
and helped him to cut the nettles and long grass with a new 
machine of which he was very proud. She fished in the river, she 
made acquaintance with the little summer-house, an Eastern 
pagoda built by a local builder from the Willow pattern on a 
Wedgwood plate, and the garage-workshop where, on rainy days, 
he pottered about with electric saws and other tools. She went 
with him to village sales where old iron lay higgledy-piggledy with 
fine china. When she was working in the laboratory, he kept on 
coming in to see how she was getting along, or to show her some 
thing. Sometimes, not looking at her but into the distance with a 
curiously detached air, he said: Why not stay here for the whole 
month? But she did not think he really meant it, and left, after 
a day of brilliant sunshine, under a full moon. 

A few days later she received the following letter: 

My dear Amalie, 

I hope that is the way to spell your name, but am not sure 

... we are all lonely since you left you cheered us all up 

and I have no one to help me with my nettle-cutting. 

You found that the little laboratory suited you, so you had 

better collect some cultures and bring them down. 
Be good to the mice. 

Yours, A. F. 

She replied with a gay and friendly letter. Far from being good 
to the mice, she had massacred eighteen of them! Her experiments 
had been held up. 

My heart is broken, and, for the time being, I have aban 
doned my enterococcus . . . Are you coming to London at all 
before the end of your holiday? 

Kind regards, 

Yours, A. VOUREKA 

My name is spelt Amalia. 

She felt that she ought not to accept his invitation to return. It 

242 



THE SILENCES OF PROFESSOR FLEMING 

had seemed to her vague, and she thought that it was probably just 
a piece of good manners. But by return of post came another letter: 

My dear Amalia, 

I have just got your letter thanks. The lab. is empty and 
needs a lab.-boy to clean it. I have got a boat it came last 
night, and I was on the river this morning . . . There is a sale 
at Bury St Edmunds on Tuesday I enclose catalogue and 
you will see that there are plenty of antiques. Does it appeal 
to you? If so, come down and we can spend another day hun 
ting for bargains. If you are coming, ring me up this evening, 
and we can make arrangements. If you cannot come, send the 
catalogue back. 

On Monday evening we are having some people in for 
cocktails, so if you come you can join the party. 

We still miss you. 

Yours, A. F. 

This time there could be no doubt: he wanted her to go back. 
She arrived at The Dhoon on the evening of the cocktail party. 

While Fleming was giving drinks to his friends and neigh 
bours, the housekeeper, Mrs Marshall, told Amalia how much Sir 
Alexander had missed her. All the time you were here he was a 
totally different person.* Then, abruptly, she added: That s what 
he needs, a young woman in his home. It suddenly dawned on 
Amalia, through her confusion, what it was that her own shyness, 
combined with Fleming s, had for the last year kept locked away 
among the things that are not said. 

Next day, he took her to an auction sale at the charming Tudor 
village of Lavenham, presented her with a pretty antique vase, 
and gave her lunch at an old inn. During the meal he asked her 
about her domestic affairs. She told him about her constantly 
recurring disappointments. The separation between the Voureka 
husband and wife which, in spite of their very real affection for 
each other, had been going on for fifteen years, was now to be 
legalized. When tea-time came, he sat reading the paper without 
addressing a word to her. From this she concluded that she had 
bored him with her personal concerns, that Alice Marshall had a 
romantic imagination ... and that so had she! On their way back 
to Barton Mills he drove her a long way round so as to show her 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

some enchanting thatched houses. In the course of the drive he 
spoke about a book in which the gods came alive and behaved 
like young men. Even the gods/ he said, have human feelings. 
She deliberately refused to understand these enigmatic words and, 
a week later, returned to London. 

He followed her on September 3rd, On the i yth, Dr Voureka 
was to read a paper to the Microbiological Society at Manchester. 
Fleming was to make the journey byroad and offered to take her in 
the car with him. On the evening before they were to start, he 
invited her to dine in Chelsea with his son Robert and a nephew. 
He had just received his horoscope which Marlene Dietrich (whom 
he had met several times, and who now regarded him as one of 
her heroes) had had cast for him in Hollywood. Of course, Fleming 
would not have taken it seriously, but opening the document at a 
certain page, he asked her to read it. She had read only a few 
words when dinner was announced. Amalia abandoned the 
horoscope and Fleming never mentioned it again. 

Much later, after his death, when she was turning over many 
memories in her mind, she recollected this episode and wondered 
what the contents of the page had been which he had wanted her 
to read. Here is what the horoscope had said: 

Your emotional responses are rooted in your need for 
security and a home, and this makes your love a very loyal, 
dependable and devoted thing. You are emotionally very 
sensitive, since so much is at stake, and are likely to hide 
this side of yourself until you have found somebody whom 
you feel to be worthy of your love . . . 

That, obviously, was what he had hoped to make her under 
stand, but a tiny incident may change everything. Dinner had 
been announced, and Amalia had read only the first few words. 

On the drive to Manchester, he asked her whether she intended 
to marry again. She replied ( stupidly , she says) that she was 
married. He became more silent than ever. At Manchester, while 
he was attending a committee-meeting, another doctor did a little 
gentle pulling of her leg, saying: Where is your god this evening? 
At this moment Fleming came into the room, and she replied: 
Here is God in person. After their return to London he took her 
to lunch in an hotel near Windsor, and then to the Zoo, where he 

244 



THE SILENCES OF PROFESSOR FLEMING 

photographed her in front of one of the lion cages. He kept this 
photograph in his study and called it c She and the Lion . 

At the Private View of the Academy she much admired a 
portrait of Fleming by the painter, John Wheatley. He said 
nothing, but wrote to Wheatley: 

Nov. 27. 51 
Dear Wheatley, 

In the last Academy show you had a small picture of me. 
Have you still got it? If so, are you prepared to sell it to me, 
and at what price? I admired it but I am not enamoured of 
myself but someone who is important to me also admired it 
and if it is not too expensive I would like to acquire it for him. 

He later sent this picture to Athens as a farewell present. 

Amalia was due to leave for Greece on December i5th. He 
asked her to dine with him on the i4th. He gave her a photograph 
of the little laboratory at Barton Mills under the snow. C I want you 
to take this with you, he said. You mustn t forget the little 
laboratory. On the print he had written: The little lab. which 
you liked so much, and which liked you as the only person who 
had ever kept it clean/ 

For this last dinner, he took her to his Scottish club, the 
Caledonian. He gave her champagne, spoke of the five years just 
past and of the work she was going to do in Greece. Then he took 
her to the Morning Room where they had coffee by the fire. At 
first he sat in an armchair beside her, but after a short while he 
got up and sat down again facing her. C I want to have a good 
look at you, to remember you by. 5 For some seconds he stared at 
her in silence, and then said: "What a pity these years are over! ... 
Later, he drove her home. 

When she reached Athens, she found a telegram from Fleming 
waiting for her. Good wishes and remembrances. Two or three 
days later she got a letter which said: There is a gap in lab* No. 2. 
We know why. We miss you. 3 Then a second letter: We still miss 
you. No. 2 is no longer the same. A third letter: C I cross the park 
alone now: no one to talk to me. We miss you all the time. But 
the end of the month brought a more resigned letter: We still 
miss you, but we shall get used to it. 

245 



CHAPTER EIGHTEEN 



THE DELPHIC ORACLE 



*0 8 TOU fjOous XP T l crT0 ^ Svros gpaarfis 5i& pfou j^vei, <5rre 

TTX<JnroL>v, 2uuTr6aiov, X, 183 E 

But the lover of a noble nature remains its lover for life, because the thing 
to which he cleaves is constant. 

PLATO, Symposium X, 183 E, Hamilton s translation 

4 FTER the departure of his Greek pupil, Fleming gave the 

L\ impression of being lost. He confided in nobody, but he did, 

JL X which was most unusual with him, express regret in a vague 

and general way. One of his friends, D. J. Fyffe, describes him at 

this time, as follows: 

One evening my wife and I met Fleming at the Royal 
Academy Soiree. It was duller than usual, and there seemed 
to be nothing to drink. He was wandering about in the crowd, 
and, much to our pleasure, joined us. 

This is a rotten party/ he said, Tm going home/ 

I suggested that he should come back to our flat, where we 
could have a party on our own. He drove us home. I found 
some champagne; my wife cooked bacon and eggs, and we sat 
down to supper. I think he was always at his ease with us, 
probably because we all came from Scotland. Anyway, we 
sat round the table and talked for a long time. He was 
unusually expansive. He spoke of his early life and of the 
strange fortune that had been so active in his career. I 
remember that he was wearing some rare Papal order, and 
that we twitted him on his collection of cosmopolitan decora 
tions. He suddenly became serious. 

He said that all this grandeur had come to him far too late 
in life, that he could not enjoy it as he should. Had it come 
earlier it would have given him time in which to cultivate the 
social graces in which he was deficient. He would have 
learned his manners . As it was, he said, he didn t know 
how to behave. He regretted this very much, and was certainly 
sincere in what he said. He knew that his rather brusque 

246 



THE DELPHIC ORACLE 

ways had often offended, and wished that he had had a 
longer social experience. 

He talked about all this rather wistfully, but, being a 
clear-headed, practical man, he accepted the fact as some 
thing inevitable in his intensely hard-working life ... 

Official journeys shook him out of this kind of brooding. He had 
been made a member of the UNESCO commission charged with the 
duty of organizing medical conferences, the Commission of 
International Scientific Conferences (C.LS.C.). He was only too 
glad to go to Paris for its meetings. He got on very well with his 
colleagues from other countries. 

He rarely spoke on these occasions. They attach a great deal 
too much importance to what I say, so it behoves me to be 
cautious. 5 He had a very shrewd eye when it came to summing up 
others: A ... says little, but is listened to. B ... talks a lot, but 
nobody takes him seriously. X ... young and energetic, wants to 
see results. Z ... pleasant enough, but without ideas: very 
ordinary. 



Fleming^ diary, session of /9J/, Thursday, September 
1951: H6tel Napoleon. Went for a walk along Champs 
lys6es and had a vermouth at Le Select no particular 
reason, but I wanted to sit down and have a drink. Inside, 
they were serving meals, so I thought I might as well dine 
there as anywhere. Had a very good meal, but the proprietor 
and the head- waiter came along and accused me of being the 
discoverer of penicillin. On the strength of it I got an Alsace 
liqueur made from raspberries very good and very potent. 
What a difference from anything in London! Lights every 
where, and shop windows all lit up . . . Lots of English spoken 
by people in the street. Back in hotel before 10 p.m. ... 

On October 3Oth, 1951, at St Mary s he was attending a 
session of the School Council, when he was called to the telephone. 
It was a telegram: * Would you accept nomination as Rector 
Edinburgh University. Reply at once.* 

The Scottish students themselves elect their Rectors. The post 
is an honorary one and does not involve residence. Nevertheless, 
the Rector does actually preside over the University Court, which 

247 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

is the highest authority in matters of administration and finance. 
Thus the students of Edinburgh in fact enjoy the privilege of 
electing what amounts to a Patron. They use it for the purpose of 
paying homage to those eminent men whom, for one reason or 
another., they admire. One group will choose a politician,, another 
a writer, a scholar or a famous actor. The electoral battle, which 
is enthusiastic and amusing, quickly turns into a farcical epic. 

Each candidate has to have the support of a group consisting 
of at least twenty students who conduct a vigorous campaign in 
his favour by means of posters, slogans and even pitched battles, 
because nightly combats occur between rival bands of bill- 
stickers. The Fleming faction was at first principally made up of 
medical students who are very powerful in Edinburgh, a city with 
an ancient and glorious medical tradition. Nothing could have 
given more pleasure to the Scottish youth who was still alive in 
the famous man. 



Flemings diary: Replied y 68 ? and when I rejoined Lord 
McGowan in the Council, he expressed his approval of my 
decision emphatically. Next morning one of the students 
[Ian Sullivan] came to ask my acceptance in writing. Was at 
Drapers Company Dinner that night, and when I got home, 
Harold [Montgomery, a nephew] told me they had rung up 
from Edinburgh for a second signature as they feared their 
messenger might be kidnapped. It was too late, but apparently 
messenger got through, and I was duly nominated. 

His most dangerous rival (out of eight candidates) was the Aga 
Khan, P.C., G.C.S.I., G.C.I.E., an enormously rich, powerful and 
clever man. The Aga Khan faction had hatched a plot to kidnap 
the messenger of the Fleming group at the Waverley Station. The 
Flemingites, informed of this, cut the ground from under their 
enemies feet by themselves snatching their emissary from the 
train at London and taking him back to Edinburgh by car. 

The most successful poster of the campaign was one carrying the 
single word FLEMING . It did its job, and it was cheap. Sir 
Alexander polled 1,096 votes to the Aga Khan s 660. The other 
candidates were left far behind, Fleming was pleased at having 
been elected with so big a majority. He had to go to Edinburgh 
to be installed. Harold Stewart, who made the journey with him, 

248 



THE DELPHIC ORACLE 

described it as follows: We had a very pleasant journey. He said 
"Hullo!" at King s Cross. We got into the same compartment. He 
said "Goodbye* 5 at Edinburgh. Rectoria brevitas. 

He had to deliver the Rectorial Address which, according to 
long-hallowed tradition, the students interrupted with shouting, 
singing, and every variety of noise, 

Sir Alexander Fleming to John McKeen, President of Pfizer, 
Inc., New Tork: It was a very exciting experience and after 
70 you don t want too much excitement. I can remember 
when I first read a paper to a society, in 1907. My knees 
shook, but they were concealed behind the lecturer s desk, 
and apparently my face did not give me away so all was well. 
My knees have not shaken since until I got up to deliver my 
address in Edinburgh, amidst a babel of noise. I found them 
shaking again. This time, though, I had on a long gown, and 
nobody noticed. I soon got used to the clamour, and when it 
was so loud that I could not be heard, I amused myself by 
thinking which bit I could cut without spoiling the story. 
All went well. 

He was determined to make himself heard, and he succeeded. 
His address, which was excellent, deserved a hearing. He had 
chosen Success as his subject: 

What is success? It might be defined as the achievement of 
one s ambitions. If we accept this simple definition then 
everyone is in some way successful, and no one is completely 
successful. You have all achieved one ambition, to be students 
of the great University of Edinburgh. But you will have other 
ambitions, because ambition once achieved leads on to others. 

Then he described what he held to be the most successful 
careers in history those of Pasteur and Lister and pointed out 

that success involved the conjunction of luck and genius. 

* 

The success of Louis Pasteur was phenomenal. How did it 
come about? The answer is, I think, simple by hard work, 
careful observation, clear thinking, enthusiasm and a spot of 
luck. Plenty of people work hard and some of them make 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

careful observations, but without the clear thinking which puts 
these observations in proper perspective, they get nowhere. 

Speaking of his own career, he reminded his listeners, as it was 
his habit to do, that he had chosen St Mary s because that 
hospital happened to possess a very active swimming club. About 
the same time, the greatest of English bacteriologists, Almroth 
Wright, had gone there because he had quarrelled with the 
military authorities. But for that double piece of luck his own 
love of swimming and Wright s rupture with the War Office 
he might have been drawn into some other branch of medicine, 
and would not have discovered penicillin. 

As to that discovery, he would be the first to attribute it to luck. 
A mould of penicillium had drifted in through a window. It 
had dissolved bacteria. He had taken notice of this, had continued 
his researches, and had found a substance possessed of extra 
ordinary properties. What a variety of luck had been needed for 
him to get that far! Out of thousands of known moulds one, and 
one only, produced penicillin, and out of the millions of bacteria 
in the world, only some are affected by penicillin. If some other 
mould had come in contact with the same bacteria, nothing would 
have happened; if the right mould had come in contact with some 
other culture, nothing would have happened. If the right mould 
had come in contact with the right bacteria at the wrong moment, 
there would have been nothing to observe. Further, if, at that 
precise moment, his mind had been occupied with other things, 
he would have lost his chance. If he had been in a bad mood, he 
might well have thrown away the contaminated culture. 

Had I done that I would not be here giving the Rectorial 
Address, so your selection of me as Rector really depended on 
my being in a good temper on a morning in September 1928 
before a lot of you were born. However, Fate ordained that 
everything happened right and penicillin appeared. 

He spoke also as his custom was about team-work. There 
is, he said, great value in a team. For lack of a team he had not, 
while at St Mary s, been able to purify penicillin, and this had 
been done, only much later, by the team at Oxford. But there was 
much, too, to be said in favour of lonely research. 

250 



THE DELPHIC ORACLE 

It is the lone worker who makes the first advance in a 
subject: the details may be worked out by a team, but the 
prime idea is due to the enterprise, thought and perception of 
an individual ... If, when penicillin began in my laboratory 
by an accidental occurrence, I had been a member of a team 
working on a specific problem, it is likely that I would have 
had to play for the team and so neglect this chance occurrence 
which had nothing whatever to do with the problems in hand. 
But, fortunately, I was not then one of a team, and, though 
there was nothing tangible to show that this chance occur 
rence was important, I was able to turn aside into the path 
which had been opened to me. 

When he had finished, the students made a concerted rush at 
him, lifted him off his feet, and, to the accompaniment of an 
ear-splitting din of shouts, singing, drum-beating, mouth-organs 
and trombones, carried him shoulder-high to the Students Union, 
where everybody took tea. It was the general opinion that he had 
come through this by no means gentle ordeal with courage and 
good-humour. He was a very popular Rector. 

The merry-go-round of glory continued to revolve. In 1952 he 
went to Switzerland for a meeting of the World Health Organiza 
tion. It took place in Geneva, but on his way there he stopped at 
Lausanne for a few days of rest and relaxation. On top of the hill 
at Gruy&re he had a lunch consisting only of cheese *one of the 
best meals I ever had.* At Geneva he learned that the World 
Medical Association was to meet in Athens during October, and 
that a member of the C.I.S.C. would be expected to attend. He 
said that he would very much like to be chosen, because he had 
interests in Athens . UNESCO was only too glad for him to travel to 
Greece as its delegate. He returned from Switzerland by car via 
the Jura, and stopped at D61e where he drank vin d Arbois to the 
memory of Pasteur. 



On October 6th he flew to Athens where he arrived thirty-six 
hours late, at three in the morning, feeling somewhat uneasy 
because he did not even know at what hotel he would be staying. 
When the door of the aeroplane was opened, he saw Amalia 

251 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

waiting for him in a group of friends. Much relieved, he shut his 
eyes a peculiarity of his and stood for several seconds upright 
and motionless in the doorway, making it impossible for the other 
passengers to get out. He need worry no longer. The programme 
of his stay had been drawn up with care and affection. The 
University of Athens had asked Dr Voureka to organize every 
thing lectures, receptions, visits and excursions. She was 
delighted to act as Fleming s guide and interpreter. She was proud 
of him, and proud, too, to show him her country. Greece fascinated 
him. On the first morning, he noted in his diary: 

The sun was shining. My bedroom had a wide balcony. It 
was warm, so without dressing I walked out ... There, in 
front of me, was the Acropolis, my first joy after waking in 
Athens . . . something never to be forgotten. 

Not only did Greece attract him, as it attracts all the peoples 
of the Western world, but his interest had been stimulated by the 
description of the beauties of her country which Amalia had given 
him in the course of the last few years. 

She had told me of the wonderful blue skies and the blue 
sea, of the sunshine and the fascinating changes of colour on 
the mountains. After all that I had been expecting a great 
deal, and although I arrived only in October, I have found 
that she had not exaggerated the beauty and charm of Greece. 

His visit was one of friendship and triumph. He gave his first 
lecture in the aula of the University. So great was the crowd that 
many official persons could not get in. The Archbishop was 
present, the Prime Minister, a host of distinguished scientists, and 
old women in their picturesque headdresses. When these women 
were politely told that they would not be able to understand what 
he said because he would be speaking in English, they replied that 
they had come from their villages to see him. 

He found an immense pleasure in letting his friend and 
collaborator do the honours of her country. They took their meals 
beside the sea. At night the coast looked like a necklace of dia 
monds. She flew with him to Salonica. When she told him that 
he would have to leave a card on the Archbishop, he had to 
confess that he had not brought any visiting-cards with him, but 

252 



THE DELPHIC ORACLE 

asked for a blank card on which he wrote his name in letters so 
perfectly formed that they might have been engraved. 

A car had been put at his disposal for a trip to the north of 
Greece. A royal escort of motor cyclists surrounded him in the 
wild and beautiful mountains. At Kastoria he lodged with an 
eminent citizen and, in accordance with the Greek laws of 
hospitality, was given a cup of coffee, a spoonful of jam, a glass of 
water and some of the potent local drink, tsipouro. Then, all the 
notabilities the mayor, the bishop, the chief of police, the senior 
doctor came to pay their respects to him. As each new visitor 
arrived, the tray of coffee, jam and tsipouro were brought in, 
and the hostess courteously offered it to Fleming on each separate 
occasion. Thinking it to be a ritual obligation, he partook of 
everything each time the tray was brought to him. Then he had 
to pay a visit to the bishop and drink still more tsipouro. On the 
way back, his legs were far from steady. 

But he revelled in everything like a child; fished in the lakes and 
was taken to the spot where the frontiers of Greece, Jugoslavia and 
Albania meet. Sometimes when they passed near a town where no 
stop had been arranged, the inhabitants stood on the road watch 
ing for the car, and carried off the c man who had found penicillin 
to feast and be made much of. At last he returned to Athens where 
he was to be received into the Academy. He had scarcely time 
to write his speech, which Dr Voureka had to translate in the car 
on their way to the ceremony. 

It was a great moment for me when I was received into the 
Academy of the city which had given learning to the world at 
a time when the inhabitants of my own country were bar 
barians and savages. Still more was I thrilled when I was 
presented with an olive branch cut from the tree under which 
Plato had taught his pupils. This is one of my great treasures. 

Then he resumed his travels. He saw Corinth, the Theatre at 
Epidaurus, the Temple of Aesculapius, Argos and Mycenae, 
Olympia and Delphi, which, with its six thousand years of legend 
and history, its temples and its oracle and its glorious olive wood, 
filled him with wonder. But in his diary, he merely wrote: 

Visited temple ... marvellous situation ... saw ruin where 
oracle originally sat and position she occupied later in temple. 

253 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Visited fountain ... in which people washed before consulting 
the oracle. Sat there with a pot of beer . . . Went over temple 
again. Much better second time- 
In front of the stone on which the oracle sat, he had the way in 
which she made her utterances explained to him. He began to say 
The Delphic oracle ...* but his companion interrupted him to 
point out a ray of sunlight which, darting from a cloud, illumi 
nated the olive trees in the valley: Look how beautiful it is!* Then, 
remembering that she had interrupted him: You were going to 
say something?* *No, nothing, 5 he replied. 

He admitted later that the Delphic oracle had counselled him 
to marry his travelling-companion. An old woman, seated on a 
stone, and pretending to be wise! She got a lot of people into 
trouble in the old days and she is still at it/ 

On his return to Athens he carried out in the laboratory of the 
Evangelismos Hospital (the very one of which Dr Voureka was in 
charge) a series of demonstrations having to do with phagocytosis 
and the opsonic index. He had long scientific conversations 
with Professor loakimoglou, and a talk, no less serious, with 
the Professor s niece, Nora, on the subject of her dolls. In the 
note-book in which he jotted down the outstanding incidents of 
every day, he wrote: Mairoula is afraid of me , and, two days 
later: Mairoula now friendly. Mairoula, Amalia s niece, was two 
years old. 

He lunched privately with the King and Queen. 

Flemings diary: Drove out to Summer Palace at 1.30. 
Received by Queen Frederica a young and attractive 
woman. Very vivacious and talked away. King came in 
soon. Had a drink and then went to lunch. Just the four of us. 
Dr Voureka, King, Queen, Self. Good General conversa 
tion ... Stayed till 3.45. Gave Queen penicillium culture. 
She seemed very pleased. 

At last, after a few days rest at Rhodes, he was given the 
Freedom of Athens and the City Medal at a solemn ceremony in 
the City Hall, the walls of which were hung with alternate English 
and Greek flags. This occasion marked the end of a marvellous 
journey. He had witnessed the adoration of the ordinary people; 
he had had honours showered upon him- He had been deeply 

254 



THE DELPHIC ORACLE 

touched by the devotion of his young companion. It was thanks 
to her that his visit had been so pleasant and so perfect. But 
he was due to leave on November loth. 

On the evening of the gth, he went to her house to write his 
letters of thanks and farewell, to collect his papers and arrange 
his notes. She was sad and tired. All of a sudden, after a month 
of unceasing effort, she felt overcome with exhaustion. She 
thought that perhaps she would never see her master again, and 
was conscious of a sense of painful solitude. They had a last, quiet, 
melancholy dinner together. Just as he was about to say goodbye, 
he muttered some unintelligible words which she failed to hear. 
After a moment, he said: *You have not answered me/ 

Did you say anything?* 

C I asked you to marry me/ 

She looked at him without wholly taking in his words. Then her 
brain started to function again. The meaning of what he had said 
dawned on her. Yes/ she replied. 

In Fleming s diary, under the date November gth, 1952, there 
are a few technical notes, and then, on a line by itself, the one 
word c Yes . 

He left Athens on the loth, without having had another chance 
to speak with the woman whom a single word had made his 
affianced bride. He had to spend all that last morning in receiving 
the visits of doctors and students who came to say goodbye. 

From the aeroplane he wrote his first letter to Amalia as his future 
wife, and in the next nine days he wrote her nine letters. They were 
letters full of anxiety, for he was without news of her: disturbed by 
his laconic proposal, she had decided to wait until she was sure of 
his feelings, before writing herself. But at last he received two 
letters by the same post, containing many expressions of exuberant 
happiness. His anxiety now relieved, he sent her a very matter-of- 
fact one in reply, realistic and sensible, in which he explained that 
he could not take her to India with him, and did not want the 
marriage to be performed before he left on that journey. c lt would 
be a mistake to marry you and then vanish for two months/ He 
suggested that the ceremony should take place after he got back 
from Cuba and the United States, in the second fortnight of 
June 1953. After all, we are launching out on a long-term voyage/ 
He seemed, she thought, to see life in terms of eternity. 

255 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 
Fleming to Professor and Mrs Roger Lee, January 6th, 1953 

My Dear Friends, 

Thank you ever so much for your Christmas greetings , . . 
I am due to give a lecture in Boston on May 2Oth next, and 
I was hoping to stay for one or two days. 

It may be that I shall be able to introduce you to a new 
wife but please do not say anything about this to anyone. It 
seems late in life to marry again but I think it is worth it ... 

He left for India at the beginning of 1953 with a number of 
doctors, among them a Frenchman, Professor Georges Portmann 
of Bordeaux, with whom he struck up a friendship. He very soon 
became popular among his companions. They liked his simplicity, 
his good Scotch fun , his dry humour. They were amazed at his 
youthfulness. They called him Flem . They were surprised, and 
he no less, at the adoration shown him by the Indian crowds in 
Bombay and later in Madras. When he spoke, the halls were not 
large enough to hold all those who wanted to hear him, and he 
was wildly applauded wherever he went. He said that he felt 
like a Hollywood film-star, but from the way he said it, one could 
see that he really quite liked being a star.* 

He insisted on taking his sliare in all the fatigues of the trip, 
and was not at all pleased when four bearers attempted to carry 
him up an immensely long staircase which led to one of the 
temples. He liked to show how young and virile he was. When he 
spoke on medical education, he advised his Indian listeners to 
beware of the flim-flam* (a favourite expression of his) of public 
lectures. He dwelt on the importance of small groups of pupils, 
and on individual research-work. Fundamentally, his ideal was 
the old Inoculation Department. In the evenings at their hotel 
he liked gathering his friends together for what he called a frig , 
because he kept his whisky in a refrigerator. 

Aneurin Bevan, the English Labour M.P., who was a great 
orator and happened to be attending another congress in India, 
delivered a fine speech on the subject of Social Medicine. He was 
surprised to see Fleming in the front row, knowing, as he did, how 
hostile he was to all State intervention. Later on, Fleming said 
that he hesitated to address the company after they had heard 
another Britisher who was so much better a speaker. On the 

256 



THE DELPHIC ORACLE 

other hand/ he added, when I speak, I give you the facts; Bevan 
has to draw upon his imagination. 3 After saying this, he told 
the story of penicillin and pointed out what, to his mind, were the 
true principles of research. After so much repetition, he had 
become, where these matters were concerned, almost eloquent. At 
the conclusion of his speech, the students gave him an ovation and 
besieged him with requests for his autograph. 

He looked at temples and grottoes, ceremonies and dances with 
the same interest that he showed in all new and beautiful things, 
and a pleasure which nothing could blunt. He took thousands of 
photographs. He wanted to examine everything, understand 
everything, but also, as always, not to be taken in, 

Throughout the trip, he was constantly buying saris, scarves and 
other feminine adornments. He chose them with so much love and 
care that the others began to question him. He replied that they 
were all for his sister. No one believed this, but it was impossible 
to get anything else out of him. Personal feelings were, for him, 
too sacred to be expressed in words. All the same, in spite of his 
self-control, his emotion when he was buying these things was 
clearly visible. 

He took part in a leopard-hunt and a walking-race. Of all these 
things he sent long descriptions to his future wife: 

I seem to have written for a whole half-hour which is more 
than your ration. You are being spoilt. At 6.30 it is just getting 
light and thousands of sparrows are chattering in a tree 
outside the window. 

Ever since leaving Greece he had taken to writing letters to her 
every day, and sometimes twice a day. 

By the time the trip was over, his companions had grown 
sincerely attached to him, and decided that, c in his own quiet, 
reserved and imperturbable way, he displayed the finest qualities 
of the human character. The American, Dr Leo Rigler (from 
Duarte, California), who was one of his fellow travellers, writes: C I 
shall always remember the cigarette drooping from his mouth, and 
the modest, natural way in which he accepted so much adulation. 3 

He arrived back in London on March 3 1 st. It had been arranged 
that Amalia should come as soon as Fleming reached home, that 
they should get married at once and set off together for Cuba and 

257 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

the United States. She had succeeded in gaining two months on 
the original time-table. 

When she got out of the aeroplane which brought her to 
England on Good Friday, April 3rd, she looked for him, but in 
vain. When he had travelled to Greece, she had asked for, and 
obtained, permission to await his arrival on the airfield. But 
Fleming always had scruples about asking for favours, no matter 
how small. He had kept in the background to avoid publicity. 
She found him, at last, at the exit from the Customs shed, in the 
very back row of those who had come to meet passengers. 
Brimming with happiness she ran to him, and was appalled to see 
confronting her a face like a stone wall. Beside him, looking 
gloomy, was Elizabeth, Sareen s twin sister. Amalia, frozen and 
wretched, looked at these two seemingly hostile persons without 
in the least understanding what was happening. Later on, when 
she had learned to interpret the least quiver of her husband s face 
and to divine the secret springs of his otherwise unintelligible 
behaviour, she came to understand the intensity of emotion 
denoted by this complete immobility of his features. She knew by 
then what a struggle between opposed feelings and duties was 
sometimes going on behind that impenetrable face. 

Later, too, she realized that only his immense kindliness had 
led him to bring his sister-in-law with him to the airport. He had 
wanted to give the old and ailing woman a feeling that nothing 
would be changed where she was concerned. The most precious 
virtues have often a counter-balance of scruples which, in their 
turn, can inflict profound and unnecessary suffering on the 
beloved. Fleming had the defects of his qualities. Such a value 
did he set on loyalty that he tried to be loyal to everybody at one 
and the same time. Oversensitive, he sought refuge in an excessive 
reserve. He was too wise, too patient, and extreme patience is 
sometimes a dangerous virtue* Naturally modest, he found it 
difficult to believe that anyone should love him. There were no 
limits to his fair-mindedness, with the result that his efforts to 
achieve impartiality sometimes made him unfair to himself and 
to those he loved. 

Next morning, Saturday, he went with his future wife to the 
Chelsea Registry Office to get a marriage-licence. The Registrar 
took down his name and address with a completely impassive 

258 



THE DELPHIC ORACLE 

expression. One could have sworn that he had never heard of Sir 
Alexander Fleming. But when he had finished writing, he said, 
in the same official tone and not raising his eyes: C I presume, sir, 
that you would wish to avoid all publicity. I will post the necessary 
notice as late as possible. The Press will know nothing about it 
until the office reopens on Tuesday/ Fleming said c Thank you. 
Both men had observed the maximum degree of reserve and 
discretion. The Registrar had almost outfleminged Fleming. 

On the following Tuesday and Wednesday the newspapers, now 
in possession of the information, pursued both of them in an 
attempt to discover the time and place of the ceremony. At 6 
p.m. on Thursday, Fleming went as usual to the Chelsea Arts Club 
for his game of snooker. He said nothing to his friends about his 
marriage, but on the way out grunted something to the effect that 
I probably shan t be here tomorrow: I may have to make a change 
in my habits. 

His stockbroker, A. M. Ritchie, who was also his friend, had 
received from him that day a note in which he spoke of important 
business, which you will probably see something about in the papers . 
Ritchie telephoned to ask what the important business was. Fleming 
was evasive and merely said: Come and see me after dinner. 

Apparently , says Ritchie, his marriage had been announced 
in the late editions of the evening papers, but not in the one I 
had read, so that, when I went to see him, I knew nothing about 
it. That, at first, was the cause of some small embarrassment, 
because I put some questions to him, and he, believing that I 
already knew, thought I was having fun with him. Finally the 
misunderstanding was cleared up, and we had a delightful 
monosyllabic tete-a-tete over whiskies and sodas and cigarettes. 
He was obviously a happy and satisfied man, which he had not 
been for several years. 

On Thursday, April gth, at n a.m. the civil marriage took 
place at the Chelsea Registry Office, in the presence of only two 
witnesses. The religious ceremony followed at midday, at the 
Greek Church of St Sophia, in Moscow Road, before a few friends 
and relations. Finally, there was a small party at Claridge s, 
where the newly married couple were to spend the week before 
they left for Cuba. 

259 



CHAPTER NINETEEN 

TOO SHORT A HAPPINESS 



Tx6vri S <5cpTf)v dAriSfj xod 0pf a^vcp Cnrdpxet OeoqnAeT yev^aSai, xal strap TCO 
6AAcp cScvdpcbmov d6av6nrco xal KE(VC*>. 

TTXArcov, 2v/imr6criov, XXIX, 2 1 2 A 

And having brought forth and nourished true excellence, the love of the gods 
will be his, and he, himself- if ever a man can - will be immortal. 

PLATO, The Banquet, XXIX, 212 A 

Fortune has, in many ways, been kind to me, and I have tried to repay 
Fortune by doing a good job of work. FLEMING 

FLEMING S friends approved of his marriage. Ben May wrote 
from America: *Dr Voureka has character in the sense of 
courage, sincerity and kindness. She has a fine brain and a 
good training ... 

She had admired Fleming long before she married him, and 
their life together served to confirm and deepen her admiration, 
He was human, but his humanity was of a more than usually high 
quality. He had copied out in his own handwriting Kipling s 
poem c lf *, and there can have been few men to whom each verse 
of it is so applicable. Who knew better how to meet with Triumph 
and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same ? The 
delighted surprise and, at the same time, the sincere detachment 
with which he accepted the honours which had so suddenly 
invaded his simple life; the fact that at the topmost summit of 
worldly fame he was still as modest, still as shy as before gave 
the man s true measure. 

His only defect was the difficulty he experienced in expressing 
himself, so that his strongest feeling remained unuttered. At first 
his wife suffered a good deal from this excessive reserve until a 
day came when an affectionate and spontaneous reply to some 
thing he had said took him completely by surprise, and she saw 
upon his face a sudden glow of radiant happiness. This rare 
disturbance of his features had revealed emotions so sincere and 
so strong that she felt herself rewarded for the silences which for 
so long she had found distressing and disturbing. 

260 



TOO SHORT A HAPPINESS 

On April i6th they set off together for Cuba. At the Havana 
airport they were met by the usual official personages and also 
by a young girl, Margarita Tamargo, who had worked at the 
Wright-Fleming Institute as the holder of a British Council 
bursary. She was there to act for them as guide and interpreter, the 
part played by Amalia herself in Greece. Spontaneous, exuberant, 
authoritative, but radiating kindness, she ordered everybody about 
and everybody loved her. 

In the days when she was working at the Institute, she had been 
one of Fleming s most ardent admirers. Once, when she was 
dining with Dr Voureka and other Institute friends, the future 
Lady Fleming had said that she was translating one of Fleming s 
lectures into French. Margarita Tamargo had clasped her hands 
in an ecstasy and exclaimed: c Oh! if only he would give me some 
thing to translate for him into Spanish! ... I would do anything 
for him, yes, anything until midnight! That * anything*, and the time- 
limit, had brought her a deal of teasing. 

Margarita Tamargo, happy in the good fortune of her friends, 
surrounded them with attentions and affection. The British 
Ambassador had reserved rooms for them at the Country Club, 
which was close to the golf-links, because it was the most English 
hotel in Havana. Sir Alexander, always ready to accept without a 
word any arrangement made for him by the authorities, would 
have remained there. But the Country Club was far from the sea, 
and the heat was stifling. Lady Fleming and Margarita at once 
began to hatch a plot to get him moved. They c did 5 three hotels 
in two hours, reduced the Embassy staff to a state of complete 
bewilderment because nobody knew where Fleming was to be 
found, and finally discovered a suite with a superb view over the 
ocean. Meanwhile, mail, flowers and dignitaries were being sent 
on from one hotel to another. Fleming, astonished and startled, 
between the exuberant Margarita and the impetuous Amalia, but 
not a little amused by their audacity, expressed his indignation at 
their lack of respect for the official planning. Nevertheless, he 
bloomed in this atmosphere of youth and gaiety which suited him 
a great deal better than that in which men of his age usually live. 

The Cuba visit was an immense success. He delivered a number 
of excellent lectures at the University, often improvising them at 
short notice. He spoke not only of what he had done, but of what 

261 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

he hoped to do, and of the research-work which he looked forward 
to seeing carried out by others. The students were completely 
carried away by his simplicity. He instructed them in technical 
matters and answered their questions as though he had been their 
contemporary. He visited the hospitals and was taken to see the 
hut where Walter Reed and Finlay had exposed themselves to 
mosquito bites in order to study yellow fever one of the e holy 
places of bacteriology. 

c He had no vanity/ says Margarita Tamargo, c and there was 
something very special about him which I can find no word to 
describe. He was pleased with what people did for him, with the 
things they said to him, with the homage they gave to him ... 
and, above all, with the affection which showed in their eyes. One 
evening we took him to the Tropicana (a night club) . . . He was 
terribly embarrassed when his presence was announced and 
everybody applauded. 3 

At the end of their stay they Spent three days at Veradero, in a 
villa belonging to Alberto Sanchy del Monte and his wife, 
Margarita s uncle and aunt. Fleming swam, dived and fished. He 
was given a large straw hat, and a guqyabera, a shirt worn by the 
Cubans. He was shown the grottoes full of stalactites and stalag 
mites where, as formerly in the temples of India, his hosts had the 
greatest difficulty in preventing him from climbing without a halt 
an immense flight of steps. He wanted to show that the young 
women got tired more quickly than he did. He enjoyed himself so 
much that Margarita suggested a lengthening of their stay. To this 
he said: But, Margarita, I have to work for my living* which 
was true. 

The Flemings left on April 3Oth for New York, weighed down 
by the cigars they had been given. Fleming had never smoked 
anything but cigarettes, but he disliked all forms of waste 
and, having been presented with these lovely cigars, he duly 
smoked them. 

In the United States his programme, as usual, was very 
exhausting lectures, radio, television, interviews. Here is one 
example of how his time was filled. He left Duluth in the morning 
by car, arrived at Saint-Paul where a great luncheon had been 
arranged, left again, as soon as it was over, for Rochester where he 
wanted to see his friend Keith (who had been with him at 

262 



TOO SHORT A HAPPINESS 

Boulogne-sur-Mer), visited the Mayo Clinic where he had 
several long scientific talks, and then, after dining with the Keiths, 
drove back, after dark, to Saint-Paul. Lady Fleming was worn out. 
He, however, seemed as fresh as though he had never left his 
armchair. 

It was a great pleasure for him to introduce his young wife to 
his American friends, and especially to Roger Lee, the Harvard 
professor. c Alec would sit down and sigh at times and explain 
that he was not a desk-man, nor a travelling man; he was a 
laboratory man who would like to get back to the bench. I never 
knew how he did the travelling, the speeches, etc. He was always 
accommodating, and everyone loved him. Over the years I have 
had many communications from Alec, practically all of them short 
and brief. It is to be noted that he wrote longer letters to Mrs Lee 
than he did to me, and also that his letters were longer when he 
was discussing Amalia. 

She came more and more to wonder at his extraordinary 
capacity for work, at his charming manners and splendid charac 
ter. He never complained. As an attraction he was promised three 
days rest during which he could fish in a wonderful lake. Though 
experience had taught him how empty such promises were, he 
kept on believing them. No sooner had he arrived than he was 
asked to give a dozen lectures during this ^period of rest (they 
would be so useful to the students), to visit a number of hospitals 
(the patients would be so delighted), and to talk on the radio. So 
his whole time was filled with engagements and tasks which he 
accepted from sheer goodness of heart, c to give a little pleasure*. 

As a result of being continuously at his side during this trip, she 
discovered that, when abroad, he was very much less shy than 
usual. In England an excess of reserve seemed to be imposed upon 
him by the reactions of others, at which he guessed and which he 
dreaded. But in America the radiant smile which she had noticed 
since she had first met him scarcely ever left his lips. 

This angelic mood was rarely overcast. But there were certain 
things he could not put up with. Though modest to the point of 
humility, he would not permit any lack of respect, even when it 
showed in matters of omission. He never said anything on such 
occasions, but would flush slightly, and an icy look, a glint of deep 
and irrevocable contempt, would show in his eyes. 

263 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

They returned to England in the Queen Elizabeth, both of them 
delighted at the prospect of getting back to work. His administra 
tive duties at the Institute continued to pose a number of difficult 
problems. At the time of the passing into law of the National 
Health Service, it had become necessary for the Wright-Fleming 
Institute to merge either with the Medical School or with the new 
Service. Like Wright before him, Fleming had feared that such a 
merger would mean a loss of autonomy for the Institute. His 
tenacity, his insistence on maintaining some degree of indepen 
dence, had irritated the authorities at St Mary s. But he had been 
sure that he was right, and had stuck to his point so doggedly 
that a compromise had finally been arrived at: the Institute was 
linked up with the Medical School, but retained considerable 
autonomy. As time went on, however, this autonomy which 
Fleming considered so important for the scientific spirit of the 
Institute had come to be in danger of being destroyed; and to 
Fleming, the great advocate of freedom in research , this was a 
cause of great distress. 

They settled down in London at the house in Danvers Street 
which Amalia had to some extent rearranged. In the morning he 
drove her to the Institute where both of them were working. In 
the evening, he took her home, then went to the club, which was 
near by, for his game of snooker, even when he had to dress for a 
dinner. There s plenty of time/ he would say, and continue with 
his game until ten minutes to seven. He reminded his wife, as 
though he were making an enormous concession: In the old days 
I never got home till half-past/ The extra forty minutes were his 
tribute to her. 

They went out almost every evening or entertained friends at 
home. When, by chance, they were alone together, he sat in his 
armchair and she on a stool at his feet. At those moments she felt 
herself filled with a surge of happiness, of delirious joy and peace. 
It was good to feel him there so close in mind and heart, so 
steadfast and so reliable. To have no more fears and doubts: to 
know that life would no longer hold unsolved puzzles, just because he 
was there. It was good to have at her disposal so much kindliness, 
so much knowledge, so much wisdom and to know, and to repeat 
to herself, that it would be with her for a long time, for ever. 
For, otherwise, what meaning could there be in all those strange 

264 



TOO SHORT A HAPPINESS 

coincidences which had brought together two beings belonging to 
different generations, different countries, different backgrounds? 
Fleming had always said that Destiny had played a great part in 
shaping his life. Could she not now, at last, also trust in Destiny? 

He had grown younger and seemed happier than he had ever 
been since she had known him. C I shall never be old/ he said, 
until I begin to find life dull. He certainly had not done that. 

In the country, where he and his wife spent the week-ends and 
the whole of August, his activity shamed his guests, many of them 
not yet thirty. They had to be for ever on the move, going to see 
the wonderful strawberries which he had managed to grow in an 
old tank, watching him building a new greenhouse for the toma 
toes, or mending a broken corkscrew with a machine he had set 
up in the garage which filed, polished and sharpened. If it wasn t 
any of these things, it was going with him to grub up worms for 
bait. Of course, he knew exactly where the best worms were to be 
found, for he had been observing their habits, and went straight 
to a corner near the strawberry-beds, and stuck a fork into the 
ground where absolutely perfect worms were wriggling. 

You wouldn t find these anywhere else in the garden, he 
would say with pride. All the best come from here. 5 

When he was not carrying off his friends to fish or row on the 
river, there were games to be played croquet outside, draughts 
in. He still took the same childlike pleasure in winning. There 
certainly was no idling at The Dhoon. Let s have a look at the 
headlines, said one of his women guests, opening the paper, 
before Sir Alec comes back and drags us off to play some game or 
other. 

In October 1953 he was due to make a speech at the opening of 
Les Journ6es Medicales in Nice. Two days before the appointed 
date, he woke up with a high fever. He himself diagnosed pneumonia. 
His doctor confirmed this and immediately gave him an injection 
of penicillin. His fever abated in the course of the day. The 
rapidity with which the penicillin had done its work enchanted 
him. I had no idea it was so good! he said. But any thought of 
Nice was out of the question. Lady Fleming telephoned the 
organizers, who not unnaturally protested. They had announced 
Fleming and Fleming they must have. 

Quite impossible, she said. 

265 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Then you must come instead, madame.* 

Her husband insisted on her accepting. You can t let me down/ 
he said. Then, as she stuck to her refusal, he did a most unusual 
thing: he actually paid her a compliment: No other wife could 
do as much for her husband. 

She took the plane to Nice, read his speech, and returned laden 
with flowers. The local reporters, however, seeing her there instead 
of Fleming, had demanded an explanation which she could not 
avoid giving them. The London papers, having got wind of what 
had happened, rang up Danvers Street. Fleming answered the 
call in person: Can t a chap be ill in peace? 

Fleming to Mrs Roger Lee: I did get a very sudden and, in 
the old days, I should think severe, attack of lobar pneumo 
nia. High temperature for perhaps 12 hours, and then, with 
penicillin, nothing. But the physician would keep me in bed, 
and nothing would have appeared in the papers if I hadn t 
been engaged to read a paper at a Congress in Nice ... My 
illness, though, has had two results which may be good. For 
six weeks now I have given up smoking at the moment I 
think it may be good for the health, but not for the temper. 
The other is that I have at last appreciated what a difference 
there is between lobar pneumonia now and when I was a 
student (especially in an old man). 

He kept to his bed for a fortnight, and then got up too soon, 
since, as Rector of the University of Edinburgh, he had to be 
present at the installation of the Duke of Edinburgh as Chancellor. 
It was the Duke, too, who in 1954 presided at a ceremony in 
Fleming s honour at St Mary s. On May roth, 1929, the first 
papers on the subject of penicillin had appeared in the British 
Journal of Experimental Pathology. On May 2gth, 1954, to mark the 
silver jubilee of this event, a memento in the form of two silver 
soup tureens was presented to Fleming by his colleagues in the 
library of the School. The Duke said that it was not for him in the 
presence of so distinguished an audience to recall what Sir 
Alexander had achieved, but that he knew enough about it to 
hope that he himself would never have need of that discovery. He 
added that c soup tureens were a suitable present to commemorate 
broth . Fleming, in his reply, quoted the proverb: c TaU oaks from 

266 



TOO SHORT A HAPPINESS 

little acorns grow.* From a minute spore a mighty industry had 
developed. 

A few moments before the ceremony was timed to begin, his 
wife noticed that he had forgotten to put the links into his shirt- 
cuffs. She had hurried round to the local Woolworths and bought 
him a pair for a few pence. He never enjoyed being the central 
figure on any public occasion and quite frequently forgot his role. 
Some time later, the Queen Mother went to St Mary s to lay the 
foundation-stone of a new wing. She was to place within the 
marble block a culture of penicillium, a copy of Sir Zachary 
Cope s book about the hospital, and a stop-watch marking the 
exact time taken by Roger Bannister (a student at St Mary s) to 
run the mile. Surrounded on the platform by a group of professors, 
she rose and delivered a speech in which she did honour to Flem 
ing. Everybody applauded, including Fleming, who was probably 
sunk in a day-dream and had not heard his own name. 

The Flemings spent part of August at Barton Mills in their 
garden. Sir Alexander had promised to go to Bordeaux in 
November in response to a request from his friend, Professor 
Portmann, the Dean of the University. Portmann, who had heard 
Lady Fleming at Nice, asked her to translate Sir Alexander s 
address, and to read it in his name. 

Flemings diary, Saturday , November 13th, 1954: ... Met at 
Bordeaux by Dr and Mrs Portmann. Driven to their house on 
other side of Bordeaux ... Introduced to family. Young 
Mrs Portmann very attractive. Mrs Portmann also very 
attractive with a curious smile. The house was where Bene 
dictine used to be made. 

Sunday, November i^th, 1954: Away at 9.30 to St Emilion. 
Drove through miles of vineyards. There seemed to be quite 
different autumn colours, some deep bronze and some half 
green ... The Jurats were all in red robes. The head read a 
long speech and clothed me in a red gown and pronounced 
me a Jurat. I said very few words. Then to Pauillac where 
inaugurated into the order of the Compagnons du Bontemps 
de Mddoc. A ritual. Had to say what a wine was. Completely 
failed though told by Portmann. Gould only say Medoc wine 
. . . Then to Mouton Rothschild for lunch. They had written 

267 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

a year ago about egg-white and lysozyme ... Should resume 
that research. A wonderful lunch with wines one of which was 
1 88 1 (my birthday). 

Monday, November ijth: ... To Town Hall for lunch with 
Mayor. Lunch ended about 4. A very short rest, for at 5 had to 
go to Theatre to receive degree ... British and French flags. 
Marseillaise and God Save the Queen. Portmann speech. 
Rector speech. A. F. in French and then Amalia gave lecture 
on Search for Antibiotics, in French. Very successful ... Then 
to University Council dinner . . . 

He had wanted for a long time to be relieved of his work as 
Director of the Institute. He was far better suited to free research 
than to administrative duties. His very qualities stood in his way. 
He detested administration/ says Craxton, the secretary of the 
Institute, c so much so that I am strongly of the opinion that if he 
had been relieved of the administration of the Wright- Fleming 
Institute at an earlier date he would have been with us now. 

Knowing from experience that administration gave him such a 
"pain in the mind", I troubled him with such matters as seldom 
as possible, always made my consultations with him very brief, 
and always arranged for them to take place as soon as possible 
after his arrival at the Institute to prevent interrupting his 
research work. 

C I was more often than not greeted with a smiling face that 
appeared to cover anxiety, and the remark "Good morning, 
Craxton no trouble I hope," and when I was able to report a 
happy state of affairs his face beamed with an expression of 
relief . . . However, one of Sir Alexander s most outstanding gifts 
was his aptitude for the administration of justice. Never during 
the whole of my life have I met so just a man, and I have long 
felt that if he had not taken up Medical Research as a profession, 
he would have achieved equal fame if he had been a lawyer. 3 

But he longed to shed the burden of power. In December 1954 
Lady Fleming wrote to Ben May: 

Alec is very well. I think he has a good wife! He is retiring 
from his administrative job at the end of the month and will 
be able to devote more time to research. I am working on a 

5268 



TOO SHORT A HAPPINESS 

problem which fascinates me but I keep failing to do what I 
try. Still there is an end even to failures. 

In January 1955 he resigned his post of Principal, though he still 
kept on his laboratory at the Institute. At a small dinner given 
him at St Mary s., he made a very short speech: 

I am not going away. I am not leaving the hospital. This is 
not goodbye. I shall be here for years, so don t think you are 
getting rid of me. 

Craxton, in the name of the Council and the staff of the 
Institute, presented him with an album containing all their 
signatures and said: We sincerely wish you a long and happy 
retirement. We are glad to know that Lady Fleming and you will 
continue your researches at the Institute. May Providence lead 
both of you to new and great discoveries. 

On January isth, 1955, the Society of Microbiology gave a 
dinner in honour of Sir Alexander on the occasion of his retirement 
as Principal of the Institute. In his reply to the speeches he said: 

I am not retiring to the country to grow cabbages. I would 
rather grow microbes and I have not given up hope of reading 
a paper at one of your meetings. 

He revelled in his freedom from administrative duties and 
personal squabbles. He was, however, besieged more than before 
by visitors. Many of them wanted him to reverse his decision to 
resign. Others came to ask his advice on private matters. All this 
tired him out. One day in February, in the course of a discussion 
on the subject of his resignation, he was taken ill with sudden 
vomitings and a slight rise in temperature. There was no apparent 
reason for this. The trouble was diagnosed as gastric flu. On the 
Sunday he felt rather worse, but refused to have any of his doctor 
friends disturbed. 

From that moment , says Lady Fleming, c a change came over 
him. He seemed to be utterly exhausted. All the same, he still 
went every day to the laboratory, and talked about starting on a 
new piece of work with her, which should bear both their names 
A. and A. Fleming. They were due to leave on March iyth for 
Istanbul, Ankara and Beirut, with a few days in Greece. Amalia 
hoped that the sun would do her husband good. 

269 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

March 3rd, 1955: Alec had a rather bad winter, coughing and 
living in this cold London without any sun. I am trusting 
Greece to make him regain his beautiful tan colour. 

She was wildly happy at the prospect of going back with him 
to Athens. She knew the itinerary and the dates by heart. He 
would ask her: Where shall we be on the 23rd?* and she 
would reply with such a wealth of detail that it set him off 
laughing. 

One Saturday, at the beginning of March, when they had gone 
to Barton Mills for the week-end, the telephone rang at midnight. 
Fleming answered it. She could hear what he said: c Oh, they have, 
have they? . . . Many thanks . . , I am most grateful ... I shall be 
back tomorrow/ 

His tone was one of polite gratitude. When he rejoined her, he 
said: That was a policeman. He was speaking from the house, 
from Danvers Street. There has been a burglary. 

What has been taken? she asked. 

I don t know, he answered, *I didn t inquire. 

They went home next morning. Before leaving The Dhoon 
they had a last look round. The studio where he had made his 
little laboratory stood out clearly against the snow between the 
trees. Amalia thought that the garden was looking exactly like 
the photograph he had given her when she went back to Greece, 
saying as he did so: You must not forget the little lab. 

There was surface ice on the road. It was snowing. There was 
a sort of pendent gloom over everything. As they were passing a 
cemetery, he asked a woman friend who was with them whether 
.she would like to see the crematorium. When she protested, he 
said in a very low voice: C I should like to be cremated.* When they 
reached Chelsea, they learned that a neighbour had raised the 
alarm just as the burglars, having taken but the safe, had dropped 
it into the street with a dreadful din. They had then made off, 
taking with them Lady Fleming s jewellery, a few ornaments 
and a camera. Reporters arrived. Lady Fleming told them that 
the most tiresome theft of all was that of the keys to their luggage, 
which were attached to a valuable seal which had belonged to a 
woman friend. But seal and keys had vanished. This detail was 
published in the Daily Express. Just about dinner-time Lady 

270 



TOO SHORT A HAPPINESS 

Fleming was called to the telephone. She heard a completely 
strange, deep, low, unpleasant voice, a dirty voice 3 , which said: 

"You d like to have that seal back, wouldn t you? 

Hesitantly, and with a strong feeling of repugnance, she replied: 
Yes. 

Where can I see you alone? asked the voice. 

You can t see me alone. Either send the seal back by post, or 
keep it. 

The voice said again, several times, in a very low tone: I ll 
send it ... I ll send it. 

She hung up the receiver, and reported the conversation to her 
husband. 

Do you think we ought to tell the police? she asked him. He 
was engaged in testing a camera which could project stereoscopic 
images on to a three-dimensional screen. 

Have a look at this/ he said, it really is extraordinary. If one 
stands a little way off, the flowers seem to come out of the screen 
and move towards you. 

It was the very latest toy from his Oklahoma friends. He had, 
as always, shown it to everybody at the lab., and then brought it 
home with him in the car so as to play with it this evening . 

I have just asked you a serious question, she said. What do 
you think I ought to do? 

She thought that she could not get him away from his toy. But 
this was his way of giving himself time to think. They decided 
finally that if the thief did the decent thing and returned the 
seal, they mustn t lay a trap for him. 



For some days, he had been teasing her about their Middle East 
journey: You want us to go? ... Well, I shall catch typhoid and 
die. She begged him to have an anti-typhoid vaccination, but he 
kept on shilly-shallying. ^ 

On the Thursday, Compton told Lady Fleming that he had at 
last managed to give Sir Alexander the injection. Since he 
wouldn t come down to the clinic, I went and did him in his lab.,* 
he said with a gay laugh. 

Fleming spent all day working at the Institute. He told Free 
man how pleased he was at having got rid of his responsibilities, 

271 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 
and to be able to do some real work and muck about at the bench 
again . He seemed well and in a thoroughly good humour, plan 
ning all sorts of new research work. After leaving the hospital 
he went as usual to the Chelsea Arts Club for his game of snooker. 
His old friend, Dr Breen, thought he was looking remarkably fit 
and told him so. He replied that he had never felt better and 
that he was much looking forward to seeing Greece again with 

his wife. 

When he had finished his game, he fetched her and they went 
on together to a party. After dinner, his son Robert and his 
fiancee came round, and once more the wonders of the new 
camera were demonstrated. Amalia was dropping with fatigue. 
Fleming was in high spirits and enjoyed showing off his marvellous 
toy. From time to time he scratched his arm which the inoculation 
had left rather sore. 

On Friday morning, March i ith, he awoke in a very gay mood 
and watched with some amusement the eagerness with which his 
wife opened the post. 

You re hoping to find your seal, aren t you? You ll never see 

it again.* 

He had a heavy but pleasant day ahead of him: lunch at the 
Savoy, and dinner with Douglas Fairbanks Junior and Eleanor 
Roosevelt. He got up, and went to have his bath. When he came 
back he looked very pale and complained of a feeling of nausea. 
Amalia felt frightened and went to the telephone to call a doctor. 
Fleming protested vigorously: Don t be ridiculous: don t trouble 
a doctor for nothing. 

But she had already got through. Dr John Hunt answered her: 
TU be with you in an hour. Not before that? she exclaimed 
anxiously. 

Fleming said again that she was being ridiculous, that he d 
only been a bit sick. That was perfectly true. If only, she thought, 
she could learn to take things as calmly as he did, and not start 
worrying for nothing* Then, remembering the Fairbanks dinner, 
she wanted to ring up and say that Sir Alexander was too unwell 
to come. 

, Don t do anything about it yet, he said, it may not be 
necessary/ 

He asked for some hot water to drink, then for bicarbonate of 

272 



Lady (Amalia) Fleming 
In Rome, September 1953 





Sir Alexander Fleming in 1954 in his last laboratory at the Wright-Fleming Institute. A photograph 

by Douglas Glass 



TOO SHORT A HAPPINESS 

soda. He got to his feet and began to walk about the room. His 
healthy, vigorous body was trying to shake off the unexpected 
malaise, refusing to accept it. But he had to give in and go back 
to bed. 

Amalia left the room to get dressed, leaving him for a short 
while with the maid. Dr Hunt, who had been alarmed at the 
anxiety in Lady Fleming s voice, rang her back. Fleming insisted 
on taking the call himself. 

Is it urgent? Shall I leave my other cases and come round at 
once? 

No urgency whatsoever ... Look after your other patients first. 5 

His wife came back and found him lying on the bed, perfectly 
calm and peaceful. The attack, she thought, had passed, and, 
remembering that he had been in oculated the day before, asked 
him whether the feeling of sickness might not be a delayed reaction. 

No, he said. His voice was serious. Then: "Will you comb my 
hair? When she had done this, he said: Now I am decent. 5 

She wanted to take his pulse. His arm was cold. Yes/ he said, 
I m covered in cold sweat. And I don t know why I ve got this 
pain in my chest. 

This time, she felt panic-stricken: Are you absolutely sure it s 
not your heart? 

It s not the heart, he said, it s going down from the oesophagus 
to the stomach/ 

His voice was still strangely calm and serious. It was as though 
he were thinking deeply and trying to understand. 

Suddenly his head fell forward. 

Alexander Fleming was dead. 



As the result of a supreme act of self-effacement, a sensitive 
desire that nobody should be disturbed on his account, a deter 
mination not to be in any way a privileged patient, the man who 
had given to medicine its most effective weapon against disease 
had died in the very heart of London without medical care. 
He died as he would have wished to die, in full possession of his 
strength, in full control of his fine intelligence. He died as he had 
lived, quietly, stoically, silently. 



EPILOGUE 

Only in extraordinary circumstances does the name of a scientist reach put 
beyond the borderline of science and take its place in the annals of humanity. 

BALZAC 

HE was buried in the crypt of St Paul s, a high honour con 
ferred on only a few illustrious Englishmen. The ushers were 
drawn from among the students and nurses of St Mary s. 
Professor Pannett, his friend and companion since the day when 
they entered the world of medicine together, delivered the funeral 
oration: 

Fifty-one years ago a small group of young men, most of us 
in our teens, met at St Mary s Hospital Medical School. We 
were competitors for a scholarship. It was there that I 
first met Alexander -Fleming. He was a little older and more 
mature than the rest of us, a quiet man with alert, blue, 
penetrating, resolute eyes . . . For the first few years we were 
rivals but afterwards our paths diverged, yet never was this 
bond of, friendship strained, for Fleming had that steadiness 
and steadfastness of character that gave the quality of security 
to a friendship which lasted unsullied until his death. This 
constancy of his was outstanding and inspired a confidence 
in his friends and companions which was never misplaced ... 

On that early autumn morning how far it was from our 
thoughts that we were in the presence of one of the greatest 
men of the century and that, one day, a large crowd would 
be gathered together in this beautiful cathedral to mourn the 
death of one acclaimed by the whole world as a scientific 
genius; and to do homage to his memory. 

Tributes to his greatness have poured in from far and 
wide, for it is generally recognized that by his work he has 
saved more lives and relieved more suffering than any other 
living man, perhaps more than any man who has ever 
lived. This by itself is enough to alter the history of the world. 
His name will always be cherished as long as this Western 
culture, so dear to us, exists. 

274 



EPILOGUE 

I shall not speak of his hopes, his strivings, his disappoint* 
ments and frustrations ... Every great scientist knows these 
and Fleming experienced them in full measure ... but there 
is a remarkable aspect of Fleming s life which is not so widely 
known. Looking back on his career, we find woven into the 
web of his life a number of apparently irrelevant chance events 
without one of which it would probably not have reached its 
climax. There were so many of these events, and they were all 
so purposive that we feel driven to deny their being due to 
mere chance , . . 

His choice of a profession, his selection of a medical school, 
his deviation into bacteriology, his meeting with Almroth 
Wright, the nature of the work he did with him, the chance 
drop of a tear, the chance fall of a mould, all these events 
were surely not due to mere chance. We can almost see the 
finger of God pointed to the direction his career should take 
at every turn. 

In the crypt of St Paul s, close to the towering tombs of Welling 
ton and Nelson, the letters A. F.* upon a flagstone discreetly mark 
the spot wherein his ashes lie, and on the wall near by is a 
tablet of Pentelic marble brought from Greece to London. On it 
are carved the thistle of Scotland and the lily of St Mary s. 
In this way are united three great loves of his life. 

The shock of Fleming s death was felt far beyond England. Not 
only did official expressions of regret reach his family from the 
governments of many countries, but deeply moving tributes from 
people in every walk of life. At Barcelona, the flower-sellers 
emptied their baskets before the tablet on which his visit to their 
city is commemorated. Two little girls of Bologna sent flowers 
which they had bought with money saved for their father s 
birthday present. Far and wide his name was given to streets and 
squares, and subscription lists were opened in many cities for the 
erection of monuments in his honour. In Greece the flags were 
flown at half-mast. Two motorists driving through that country, 
and surprised to see these signs of mourning in every village 
through which they passed, asked an old shepherd near Delphi 
the reason for this public display of grief, *Do you not know/ 
replied the old man, that Fleming is dead? 

275 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

The following leading article appeared in the British Medical 
Journal of March igth: 

THE DISCOVERY OF PENICILLIN 

THE discovery of penicillin introduced a new epoch in the 
treatment of disease. It has been followed by an intense search 
for other c antibiotics* , and a whole range of bacterial infec 
tions have now come within the effective control of substances 
produced, for the most part, by moulds, among which Penicil- 
lium notatum holds pride of place not only historically but also 
therapeutically. We stand so close to a bewilderingly rapid 
sequence of discoveries that as yet we probably fail to under 
stand fully the revolution in medicine that has taken and is 
taking place as a result of Alexander Fleming s discovery" It 
is natural that the world will acclaim a medical advance 
great in proportion to the curative benefits it brings, and on 
this count alone Sir Alexander Fleming has his place among 
the immortals. And close beside him will be Sir Howard 
Florey and Dr Ernst Chain, who in a systematic investigation 
of antibacterial substances ten years later hit upon the 
technical ways and means of fulfilling the promise Fleming 
held out for penicillin in 1929. Fleming had the real natura 
list s capacity for observation and the scientific imagination 
to see the implications of the observed fact a capacity and 
an imagination which, it is true, only the prepared mind can 
compass, and which in the great discovery seem invariably 
to be joined to a mind that is essentially humble. As there 
have been some popular misconceptions of the part Fleming 
played in discovering penicillin it may not be inappropriate 
at this time of his death to recall in his own words some of 
the observations he summarized in his historical paper in 
the British Journal of Experimental Pathology for June 1929: 

A certain type of penicillium produces in culture a 
powerful antibacterial substance . . . 
The active agent is readily filterable and the name 
penicillin has been given to filtrates of broth cultures 
of the mould ... 

The action is very marked on the pyogenic cocci and the 
diptheria group of bacilli ... 

276 



EPILOGUE 

Penicillin is non-toxic to aninjials in enormous doses 
and is not irritant. It does not interfere with leucocytic 
function to a greater degree than does ordinary broth . . . 
It is suggested that it may be an efficient antiseptic for 
application to, or injection into, areas infected with 
penicillin-sensitive microbes ... 

The discovery recorded in Fleming s paper is a milestone in 
the history of medical progress, and the penicillin he 
discovered and named has come nearer than any other remedy 
to Ehrlich s ideal therapia sterilisans magna. 



The discovery of penicillin has indeed opened c a new epoch in 
the treatment of disease . The doctor of today can hardly visualize 
how helpless his elders felt when confronted by certain infections. 
He has had no experience of that despair which descended upon 
them when they had to deal with diseases which were then fatal, 
but can now be cured and even eliminated. Penicillin, and the 
whole range of antibiotics which its discovery has initiated, has 
enabled the surgeon to perform operations which in the old days 
he would never have dared attempt. The average expectation of 
life has so enormously increased that the whole structure of 
society has been shaken to its foundations. No man, except 
Einstein in another field, and before him Pasteur, has had a more 
profound influence on the contemporary history of the human 
race. Statesmen act from hand to mouth, but scientists by their 
discoveries create the conditions in which action is possible. 

How was it that this modest, silent research-worker became the 
beneficiary of the most remarkable piece of good luck to occur to 
anyone during his lifetime? Because he had patiently prepared 
himself to recognize and to accept the truth when the moment of 
its revelation came. *In science nothing seems easier than what 
was discovered yesterday; nothing more difficult than to say what 
will be discovered tomorrow. 1 Fleming observed much that other 
men might have observed but did not. The reason for this is that 
he had a sense of proportion which was all his own. 

A flower growing in an unexpected way seemed as important 

1 Biot. 
277 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

to him as the most spectacular of phenomena. The method em 
ployed by ants in the building of their nests was to him a miracle 
at which he peered with close attention. Everything in nature had 
aroused his interest since those boyhood days he spent upon the 
Scottish moors. Had he been sent to one of the public schools, he 
might have been less shy. He might have learned how to express 
his ideas and demonstrate his facts in a more dramatic fashion. He 
might have produced a more vivid impression on others. But would 
he, in that case, have preserved his astonishing freshness of mind? 

Of what benefit to a man of profound intelligence are eloquence, 
self-confidence and brilliance? They may contribute much to his 
personal happiness, to his prestige, to his material success. But do 
they have any marked influence upon the importance of such real 
results as he may obtain? Let us take, for example, these two men, 
Wright and Fleming. Both had the same devotion to science. But 
Fleming, having nothing remotely resembling the gift of rhetoric, 
lacked the power which Wright possessed in so high a degree 
of striking the public imagination. Wright, it is true, had enemies, 
but even they, when confronted by that massive personality, could 
not deny him some element of greatness. Everyone knew that to 
question the value of his work would draw down upon the greatly 
daring critic a torrent of brilliant and sarcastic argument. What, 
on the other hand, more tempting than to think oneself superior 
to the small, shy stoic who would never do anything to dissipate 
that illusion? Without danger to oneself one could dispute his 
findings, since not for a moment would he break his formidable 
silence for, as he regarded it, so trivial a reason. 

The man of genius*, writes Lord Beaverbrook, c is often an 
egotist. When, as sometimes happens, he is simple and retiring, 
the world is inclined to underestimate his gifts. Sir Alexander 
Fleming was a genius of this rare type. Now, to be sure, his fame 
is universal ... During his lifetime, and in his own country, his 
merits were sometimes reluctantly admitted. 5 It may be that 
justice would have been sooner done to him had he been less 
reticent, if on occasion he had said something. But what? In spite 
of his silences, it was he who reached the goal. 

The best final judgment on Sir Alexander Fleming is that of 
Professor Haddow, Director of the Cancer Research Institute, 
who writes of him: 

278 



EPILOGUE 

He was a great natural searcher. He knew the importance of 
work, and he worked hard for the attainment of great ends, 
but his real superiority is to be found in his tremendous gift 
of discernment, in the swiftness with which he could pounce 
upon and grip an unexpected observation the true significance 
of which would have remained hidden from the ordinary 
mortal ... in other words, in the power he had to reveal 
the existence and qualities of fundamental phenomena ... 
It should never be forgotten that though, for the generality 
of laymen, it is with penicillin that his name is associated, he 
contributed other things which, in his eyes, were of no less 
value, perhaps of even greater value, than penicillin. For this 
reason alone he would have been a great man, but I think 
that I would rank higher than anything else in him his 
tremendous and quiet wisdom, both as regards the world 
and the nature of research, a wisdom so unruffled and so 
modest that it escaped most people who knew him only a 
little. Three things about him struck me most forcibly. This 
man realized that work mattered, not talk. His real brilliance 
which consisted in seizing upon the unexpressed and not 
ignoring it; and, thirdly, his philosophy hardly expressed 
and only to be guessed which amounted to tremendous 
wisdom about the nature of science and scientific research 
and, I often think, the world at large and his summing up 
of other people. 

The tribute which would have touched Fleming most deeply 
was that paid to his memory on October loth, 1957, in his own 
county of Ayrshire. On that day a very simple monument was 
unveiled at the entrance gate to Lochfield farm: a tall block of 
red granite bearing, as he would have wished, this unemphatic 
inscription: 

SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

DISCOVERER OF PENICILLIN 

WAS BORN HERE AT LOCHFIELD 

ON 6TH AUGUST 1 88 1 

A few cars had climbed the moorland road from Darvel, and a 
great crowd had trudged the four miles on foot, as he himself had 

279 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

been used to do as a boy on his way to and from school. When 
the flags, marked with the St Andrew s Cross, had been pulled 
aside, the Provost spoke of Alec Fleming s childhood. Here, he 
had received from those sterling parents, Hugh and Grace 
Fleming, the instruction which guided him through life. In these 
valleys, and on these hills, he had learned, at work and play, to 
know nature and to love it. His wife, looking at the lovely autumn 
sky, at the vast horizons, and at the gentle undulations of the hills, 
realized that the lofty indifference to all pettiness of life which she 
had so dearly loved in her hnsband had been engendered by 
those mingled feelings of strength and humility which such 
solitudes evoke. 

Nobody, on that 6th August, 1881 [went on the Provost] 
dreamed that the tiny, weak and puling scrap of humanity 
then starting on its life, was to be dedicated to the service of 
mankind. Fleming himself once wrote; c We like to think that 
we control our destinies, but Shakespeare, perhaps, showed 
greater wisdom when he said: 

There s a divinity that shapes our ends, 
Rough-hew them how we will.* 

Each one of us, looking back over his past life, may wonder 
what would have happened had he done something other 
than he did do, often for no particular reason. At every 
moment there are two roads open to us. One we must choose. 
Where the other might have led we cannot know. It may be 
that we chose the better, but who can say? 

Fleming had chosen the good road, and Destiny, all things 
considered, had been kind to him. 



280 



BIBLIOGRAPHY 



Letters 
Diaries 
Conferences 
Lectures 



ALEXANDER FLEMING S MANUSCRIPTS 

Talks 

Laboratory notebooks 

Student notebooks 



Dr S. Craddock s laboratory notebook on penicillin 
Dr F. Ridley s laboratory notebook on penicillin 



LETTERS OF: 



Prof, H. Berry 

Dr Charles H. Bradford 

R. Bradford 

John Cameron 

Professor C. J. La Touche 

Professor Roger Lee 



John E. McKeen 
Ben May 
Sandy Ross 
Marion Stirling 
Dr Charles Thorn 
Dr E. W. Todd 



MANUSCRIPT RECOLLECTIONS BY: 



Dr V. D. Allison 

Lord Beaverbrook 

Prof. H. Berry 

Sir Russell Brain 

Dr G. E. Breen 

Dr W. D. W. Brooks 

Mrs Helen Buckley 

H. J. Bunker 

Prof. G. A. H. Buttle 

John Cameron 

Dr P. N. Cardew 

T. S. Carswell 

Prof. E. B. Chain 

Sir Weldon Dalrymple Champneys 

W. Clayden 

Dr H. A. Clegg 

Dr Alvin F. Coburn 

Dr R. D. Coghill 

Dr L. Colebrook 

Dr A. Compton 

Sir Zachary Cope 

Dr Stuart Craddock 

Victor Craxton 



Mr A. G. Cross 

Prof. R. Cruickshank 

Sir Henry Dale 

Bebe Daniels (Mrs Ben Lyon) 

Mrs M. B. Davis 

Dr H. B. Day 

Sir Charles Dodds 

Dr Denis Dooley 

Prof. Allan W. Downie 

Mrs Sheila Doyle 

The Rev. Hamilton Dunnett 

Dr C. B. Dyson 

Dr M. J. Fentpn 

Bryan E. Figgis 

E. D. H. Firman 

Sir Wilfrid Fish 

Peter Flood 

Dr A. W. Frankland 

Dr John Freeman 

Dr R, M. Fry 

D.J. Fyflfe 

Dr Hope Gosse 

Prof. A. Haddow 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 



Mr R. M. Handfidd-Joncs 

Dr A. F. Hayden 

Dr W. L. A. Harrison 

Dr Leslie D. Harrop 

Arthur Hayward 

Dr W. E. van Heyningcn 

Dr Gladys Hobley 

Dr R. E. B, Hudson 

Dr W. H. Hughes 

Dr Thomas Hunt 

Prof. G. loakimoglou 

James Jackson 

Dr G. W. B. James 

L. Jennings 

Dr W. Hewitt Jones 

Dr Norman Keith 

Mrs Hanbury Kelk 

Dr Omar Khairat 

Dr J. Hugh Laidlow 

Prof. C. J. La Touche 

Prof. Roger Lee 

Dr R. T. Leiper 
James Leitch 

Dr A. J. Liebmann 

Prof. R. Lovell 

E. G. Lumley 
Sir Alexander McCall 
Dr G. L. M. McElligott 
Lord McGowan 
John E. McKeen 
Mrs K, MacKinnon 
Mr Douglas MacLeod 
Arthur MacMillan 
Mrs A. MacMillan 
Prof. H. B. Maitland 
D. J. Markianos 
Dr A. J. May 
Ben May 
Dr Robert May 
Gustavo Gran Medcros 
Lady Mellanby 
Arthur Mortimer 
William Morton 
A. Murray 



Henry Nash 

Prof. W, D. Newcomb 

Sir Hazelton Nichols 

Dr A. C. F. Ogilvie 

Prof.J.W. Orr 

Prof. C. A, Pannett 

Dr H. J. Parish 

Mr Francis L Peck 

Miss Marjory Pegram 

Mrs B. Pontremoli 

Sir Arthur Porritt 

Dr A. B. Porteous 

Prof. D. M. Pryce 

Dr Roger D. Reid 

Dr G. Raymond Rcttcw 

Mrs Elizabeth Reynolds 

Prof. Alfred N. Richards 

Dr Frederick Ridley 

Dr Leo Rigler 

A. M. Ritchie 

Mrs A. M. Ritchie 

Dr K. B. Rogers 

Sandy Ross 

Miss Agnes Smith 

Prof. Wilson Smith 

G. Stevenson 

Dr G. T. Stewart 

Dr K. K. Stokes 

Dr E. J. Storer 

D. Stratful 

Iain Sullivan 

Miss Margarita Tamargo 

Miss L. Theodoridou 

Lady Thomson 

Dr H. L. Thornton 

Mrs E. W. Todd 

Richard Townsend 

G. Wackrill 

Lord Webb-Johnson 

Dr Gerald Willcox 

Dr Philip H. A. Willcox 

Mr Leslie Williams 

J. Willis 

Alexander Zaiger 



ON THE INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT OF PENICILLIN 

Minutes of the Penicillin Committee - England 

Reports by Imperial Chemical Industries - England 

Reports by Boots Pure Drug Co. Ltd - England 

Reports by Glaxo Laboratories Ltd - England 

Dr Alfred N. Richards - U.S.A. 

Dr R. D. Coghill for Abbott Laboratories - U.S.A. 

Charles Pfizer, Inc. - U.S.A. 

Dr G. Raymond Rettcw for the Chester County Mushroom Laboratories and Wveth 

Laboratories - U.S.A. 
Dr Leslie D. Harrop for the Upjohn Co. - U.S.A. 

282 



BIBLIOGRAPHY 

ALEXANDER FLEMING S PUBLICATIONS DISCUSSED IN THIS BOOK 

"The accuracy of opsonic estimations (1908); Practitioner, vol. LXXX, No. 5. 

Acute bacterial infections with special reference to the means of investigation of 
the causal agent and the more recent knmunizatory methods of treatment 1 (1908); 
manuscript thesis. 

On the etiology of acne vulgaris and its treatment by vaccines (1909); Lancet, 
vol. I, p. 1035. 




(In collaboration with L. Colebrook.) 

Recent work on vaccine (1913); Practitioner, vol. XC, pp. 591-7. 

On the bacteriology of septic wounds (1915); Lancet, vol. II, p. 538. 

Some notes on the bacteriology of gas-gangrene* (1915); Lancet, vol. II, p. 376. 

Fashions in wound treatment* (1916); St Mary s Hosp. Gaz., vol. XXII, pp. 60-3. 

Studies in wound infections. On the question of bacterial symbiosis in wound 
infections (1917); Lancet, vol. I, p. 604. (In collaboration with S. R. Douglas and 
L. Colebrook.) 

The physiological and antiseptic action of flavine, with some observations on the 
testing of antiseptics* (1917); Lancet, vol. II, p. 341. 

Studies in wound infections. On the growth of anaerobic bacilli in fluid media 
under apparently anaerobic conditions (1917); Lancet, vol. II, p. 530. (In collabora 
tion with S. R. Douglas and L. Colebrook.) 

Further observations on acidaemia in gas-gangrene, and on conditions which 
favour the growth of its infective agent in the blood fluids* (1918) ; Lancet, vol. I, p. 205. 
(In collaboration with A. E. Wright.) 

The conditions under which the sterilization of wounds by physiological agency 
can be obtained* (1918); Lancet, vol. I, p. 831. (In collaboration with A. E. Wright 
and L. Colebrook.) 

On some simply prepared culture media for B. influenza 5 (1919); Lancet, vol. I, 

*Tne anaerobic infections of war wounds ; M.R.C. Anaerobic Committee Report, 
No. 39, Section 7, p. 70. 

The influence of the aerobic on the anaerobic infection in wounds ; M.R.C. 
Anaerobic Committee Report, No. 39, Section 8, p. 84. 

Blood transfusion by the citrate method* (1919) ; Lancet, vol. I, p. 973. (In collabora 
tion with A. B. Porteous.) 

On streptococcal infections of septic wounds at a base hospital* (1919); Lancet, vol. 
II, p. 49. (In collaboration with A. B. Porteous.) 

An experimental research into the specificity of the agglutinus produced by PfeifFer s 
bacillus (1919); Lancet, vol. II, p. 869. (In collaboration with F. J. Clemenger.) 

The action of chemical and physiological antiseptics in a septic wound (1919, the 
Hunterian Lecture) ; Brit, J. Sur., vol. VII, No. 25, p. 99. 

Vaccine therapy in regard to general practice (1921); B.M.J., vol. I, pp. 255-69. 

On a remarkable bacteriolytic element found in tissues and secretions* (1922); 
Proc. Roy. Soc., B, vol. XCIII, p. 306. 

Further observations on a bacteriolytic element found in tissues and secretions 
(1922); Proc. Roy. Soc., B, vol. XCIV, p. 142. (In collaboration with V. D. Allison.) 

Observations on a bacteriolytic substance - lysozyme - found in secretions and 
tissues (1922); Brit. J. Exp. Path., vol. Ill, No. 5, p. 252. (In collaboration with V. D. 
Allison.) 

A comparison of the activities of antiseptics on bacteria and on leucocytes (1924); 
Proc. Roy. Soc., B, vol. XCVI, p. 171. 

On Ac antibacterial power of egg-white (1924) ; Lancet, vol. I, p. 1303. (In collabora 
tion with V. D. Allison.) 

On the specificity of the protein of human tears (1925); Brit. J. Exp. Path., vol. 
VI, p. 87. (In collaboration with V. D. Allison.) 

283 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

On the effect of variations of the salt content of blood on its bactericidal power in 
vitro and in vivo* (1926); Brit. J. Exp. Path., vol. VII, p. 274. 

C A simple method of removing leucocytes from blood* (1926); Brit. J. Exp. Path., 
vol. VII, p. 281. 

On the development of strains of bacteria resistant to lysozyme action and the 
relation of lysozyme action to intracellular digestion (1927); Brit. J. Exp. Path., 
vol. VIII, p. 214. (In collaboration with V. D. Allison.) 

*The bactericidal power of human blood and some methods of altering it* (1928); 
Proc. R. Sac. Meet., vol. XXI, p. 839. 

On the antibacterial action of cultures of a pemcillium with special reference to 
their use in the isolation of B. influenzae* (1929); Brit. J. Exp. Path.> vol. X, pp. 226-36, 

*A bacteriolytic ferment found normally in tissues and secretions* (1929, Arris and 
Gale Lecture on Lysozyme); Lancet, vol. I, p. 217. 

On the occurrence of influenza bacilli in the mouth of normal people* (1930); Brit. 
J. Exp. Path., vol. XI, p. 127. (In collaboration with Ian H. Maclean.) 

The intravenous use of germicides* (1931); Proc. R. Soc. Med., vol. XXIV, p, 46. 

Some problems in the use of antiseptics* 6931); Brit. Dent. J., vol. LII, p. 105. 

Lysozymc (1932, President s Address); Proc. R. Soc. Med., vol. XXVI, pp. 1-15. 

On the specific antibacterial properties of penicillin and potassium tellurite. 
Incorporating a method of demonstrating some bacterial antagonisms* (1932); J. Path. 
Bact., vol. XXXV, p. 831. 

Selective bacteriostasis* (1936); Proc. Second International Cong, for Microbiology, 
pp. 33-4. 

The growth of micro-organisms on paper* (1936); Proc. Second International Cong, for 
Microbiology, pp. 552-3. 

The antibacterial action in vitro of 2-(p-aminobenzenesulphonamido) pyridine on 
pneumococci and streptococci* (1938); Lancet, vol. II, p. 74. 

The antibacterial power of the blood of patients receiving 2-(aminobenzene- 
sulphonamido) pyridine* (1938); Lancet, vol. II, p* 564. 

M and B 693 and pneumococci (1939) ; Lancet, vol. I, p. 562. (In collaboration with 
Ian H. Maclean and K. B, Rogers.) 

Sulphanilamide; its use and misuse (1939); Tr. M* Soc. Lond., vol. LXII, pp. 19-43. 

*Serum and vaccine therapy in combination with sulphanilamide or M and B 693* 
(1039); Proc. JR. Soc. Med., vol. XXXII, p. 911. 

Antiseptic and chemotherapy* (1939); Proc. R f Soc. Med., vol. XXXIII, p. 127. 

Observations on the bacteriostatic action of sulphanilamide and M and B 693 
and on the influence thereon of bacteria and peptone* (1940); J. Path. Bact., vol. L, 
No. i, p. 69. 

Chemotherapy and wound infection* (1941); Proc. R. Soc. Med., vol. XXXIV, 
p. 342. 

Penicillin* (1941); B.M.J., vol. II, p. 386. 

*A : T ^*i i ~r ..^ -*-MI-*_ __^ - A . !!___?,._. violet for 




+, * f , JT 

^Streptococcal meningitis treated wi tlT penicillin* (1943); Lancet, vol. II, p. 434. 

The use of paper and cellophane discs for the preparation of museum specimens of 
mould culture* (1943); Proc. of the Linnaean Soc. of London, Session 155. 

The discovery of penicillin* (1944); Brit. Med. Bull., vol. II, No. i ? p. 4. 

Penicillin for selective culture and for demonstrating bacterial inhibitions (1944); 
Brit. Med. Bull., vol. II, No. r, p. 7. 

Some methods for the study of moulds (1944); Trans. ofBr. Mycol. Soc., vol. XXVII, 
p. 13. (In collaboration with G. Smith.) 

Penicillin* (1944, the Robert Campbell Oration); Ulster Med. J., Nov. 1944. 

Micro-methods of estimating penicillin in blood serum* (1944) ; Lancet, vol. II, p. 620. 

Penicillin content of blood serum after various doses of penicillin by various routes* 
(1944); Lancet, vol. II, p. 621. (In collaboration with M. Y. Young, J. Suchet and 
A. J. E. Rowe.) 

Micro-methods of estimating penicillin in blood serum and other body fluids 
(1945); Amer. J. din. Path., vol. XV, No. i. 

284 



BIBLIOGRAPHY 

Antiseptics (1945, Lister Memorial Lecture); Ghent, and Ind^ No. 3, pp. 18-23." 

c Penicillin; its discovery, development and uses in the field of medicine and surgery* 
(1944, the Harben Lectures); J. Roy. Inst. Public Health and Hygiene, 1945. 

Penicillin , Nobel Lecture, Stockholm, Dec. 1945. 

Chemotherapy yesterday, today and tomorrow* (1946, the Linacre Lecture, 
Cambridge). 

The assay of penicillin in the days before it was concentrated ( 104.^-6): Bull* 
Health Org. L. */>., vol. XII, Extract No. 7. V ** 

Uses and limitations of penicillin (1946); Tr. M. Soc. Lond., vol. LXIV, pp. 142-9. 

Estimation of penicillin in serum. Use of glucose, phenol red and serum water 
(1947); Lancet, vol. I, p. 401. (In collaboration with C. Smith.) 

Louis Pasteur (1947); B.M.J., vol. I, p. 517. 

Some problems in the titration of streptomycin (1947); B.M.J., vol. I, p. 627. 
(In collaboration with J. R. May and A. E. Voureka.) 

The morphology and motility of Proteus Vulgaris and other organisms cultured in 
the presence of penicillin* (1950); J. Gen. Microb,, vol. IV, No. 2, p. 257, (In 
collaboration with A. Voureka, I. R. H. Kramer and W. H. Hughes.) 

Further observations on the motility of Proteus Vulgaris grown on penicillin agar* 
( r 95)j J- G en * Microb. y vol. IV, No. 3, p. 457. 

*Motilit6 et cils de Proteus Vulgaris (Nov. 1950); Ann. Inst. Pasteur, T. 79, p. 604. 

Hommage a Jules Bordet au nom des savants Strangers (Nov. 1950); Ann. Inst. 
Pasteur, T. 79, p. 495. 

The action of penicillin on the morphology and character of bacteria* (1952); 
Proceedings of the Academy of Athens. 

Success (1952, Rectorial Address, Edinburgh); Student, vol. XL VII, No. 8. 

Recent progress in antibiotics (1953) ; The Scientific Basis of Medicine, vol. II, pp. 
29-45, Athlone Press, 1954. 

Twentieth-century changes in the treatment of septic infections* (1953); New Engl. 
J. Med., vol. CCXLVIII, pp. 1037-45. 

Antibiotics; The Royal Inst. of Great Britain, Nov. 27th, 1953. 

*La thdrapeutique par les antibiotiques* (1954); Oazette des Hdpitaux, No. 6, p. 95. 

*A test to show the relative toxicity of a chemical to bacteria and to human leu 
cocytes (1954); Int. Arch. Allergy, vol. V, No. 2 (Paul Ehrlich Memorial Number). 

The Wright-Fleming Institute of Microbiology (1954); St Mary s Hosp. Gaz., vol. 
LX, No. 8. 

OTHER PAPERS AND PUBLICATIONS 

A. E. Wright (v. Bernard Shaw): "The medical aspect of women s suffrage (1910); 
St Mary s Hosp. Gaz., vol. XVI, 1910, p. 7. 

Col. Sir Almroth E. Wright: The question as to how septic war wounds should be 
treated* (reply to polemical criticism published by Sir W. Watson Cheyne in the 
Brit. J. Sur.) (1916;; Lancet, vol. II, p. jjO3, 

P. W. Clutterbuck and R. Lovell: The formation by P. chrysogenurn Thorn of a 
pigment, an alkali-soluble protein and penicillin (Fleming s antibacterial substance) 
in a synthetic medium (1931) ; J. Soc. Chem. 2nd. Transactions, vol. L, p. 1045. 

Percival Walter Clutterbuck, Reginald Lovell and Harold Raistrick: The formation 
from glucose by members of the Penicillium chrysogenum series of a pigment, an 
alkali-soluble protein and penicillin - the antibacterial substance of Fleming (1932); 
The Biochemical Journal, vol. XXVI, No. 6. 

Dr Roger Reid: Some properties of a bacterial inhibitory substance produced by a 
mould (1935); J. Bact., vol. XXIX, p. 215. 

E. Chain, H, W. Florey, A. D. Gardner, N. G. Heatley, M. A.Jennings, J. Orr- 
Ewing, A. G. Sanders: Penicillin as a chemotherapeutic agent* (1940); Lancet, vol. II, 
p. 226. 

Dr Robert D. Coghill: Penicillin - Science s Cinderella. The background of 
penicillin production (1944),* Chemical and Engineering News, vol. XXII, pp. 588-93. 

R. D. Coghill and Roy S. Koch: Penicillin A wartime accomplishment (1945); 
Chemical and Engineering News, vol. XXIII, p. 2310. 

285 



THE LIFE OF SIR ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Sir Almroth Wright: The History and Development qfthe Inoculation Department 
Sir Alexander Fleming: Sir Almrotk Wright, 
J. Freeman: Almroth Wright. 

Mayo Foundation House Proceedings, July i6th, 1945* 
Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, vol. VI, Feb. 1950. 
London Scottish Regimental Gazette: 1944, No. 583, vol. XLIX, p. 132; 1947, April, 
P- 595 *954> No. 698, vol. LIX, p. 42. 

St Mary s Hospital Gazette: vol. LX, No. 5, 1954; vol. LXI, No, 3, 1955* 

BOOKS 

The Medical Research Club: The First Sixty Tears, 1891-1951. 

A. E. Wright: Technique of the Teat and Capillary Glass Tube and its Application in 
Medicine and Bacteriology, Constable, 1912 (and and edition, 1921, with the collabora 
tion of L. Colebrook) . 

A. E. Wright: The Unexpurgated Case against Woman Suffrage, Constable, 1913. 

A System of Bacteriology, His Majesty s Stationery Office, 1931. 

A. E. Wright: Prolegomena to the Logic which Searches for Truth, Heinemann, 1941. 

A. E. Wright: Pathology and Treatment of War Wounds, Heinemann, 1942- 

Alexander Fleming: Penicillin, Butterworth Medical Publications, 1946 (1950). 

Florey, Chain, Heatley, Jennings, Sanders, Abraham: Antibiotics, Oxford Medical 
Publications, 1949. 

M. E, Florey: The Clinical Applications of Antibiotics (Penicillin), Oxford Medical 
Publications, 1952. 

G. W. S. Andrews and J. Miller: Penicillin and Other Antibiotics, Todd Publishing 
Group, 1949. 

Paul de Kruif: Life Among the Doctors, Harcourt Brace, 1949. 

David Masters: Miracle Drug, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1946. 

L. J. Ludovici: Fleming, Discoverer of Penicillin^ Andrew Dakers, 1952. 

Leonard Colebrook: Almroth Wright, Heinemann, 1954. 

Sir Zachary Cope: The History ofSt Mary r s Hospital Medical School, Heinemann, 1954. 

Sir Cecil Weir: Civil Assignment, Methuen, 1953. 

A. E. Wright: Alethetropic Logic; A Posthumous Work, Heinemann, 1953. 

Robert Fleming: Alec Fleming of LochfiekT (manuscript). 

OBITUARY NOTICES AND ADDRESSES ON ALEXANDER FLEMING 

Dr V. D. Allison Mr R. M. Handfield-Jones 

Prof. L6on Binet (Paris) Prof. G. loakimoglou (Greece) 

Prof. F. Bustinza (Madrid) Dr G. L. M. McElligott 

Dr L. Colebrook Prof. W. D. Newcomb 

Mr A. G. Cross Prof. C. A. Pannett 

Prof. R. Cruickshank Sir Arthur Porritt 
Dr John Freeman 

Note: All documents referred to in this bibliography, or copies of them, have been 
deposited with the Sir Alexander Fleming Museum in the Wright-Fleming Institute. 



286 



INDEX 



INDEX 



ABRAHAM, DR, 160, 169 

A^a Khan, H.H. the, 248 

Aird, Martha, 22 

Alba, Duke of, 231 

Albert, Prince Consort, 31 

Alivisatos, Prof., 222 

Allison, Dr V, D., 104-5, 109-10, 116-17, 

xig, 178-9 

Almroth, Prof. Nils, 40 
Argenlieu, Adml d*, 228 
Athens, Archbishop of, 252-3 
AureomycLn, 233 



J. (LORD), 40, 51, 55, 61, 92 
Barker, H. Granville, 51 
Barnes, J., 164 
Baron (sculptor), 228-9 
Bayer company (Germany), 145-6 
Bayct, A., 208 
B.B.C., 200 

Beaverbrook, Lord, 106, 143, 278 
Behring, 44-5, 81 
Benda, J., 208 
Bernard, C., 209 
Berry, Prof. H., 153 
Bevan, A., M.P., 256-7 
BJIIoux, 208 

Biot, Jean Baptiste, 277n 
Bliss, R. W., 94 
Boer War, 27-8, 47 
Bogomoletz, 229 
Bonn, Sir M., 61 

Boots Pure Drug Co. Ltd, 184, 207 
Bordet, Prof. J., 78-9, 122, 138, 198-9, 238 
Boswell, James, 18 
Bovct, 146 

Breen, Dr G. E., 146, 149, 213, 272 
Brinton, 71 

British Council, 221, 226, 261 
British Drug Houses Ltd, 184 
British Medical Journal tribute, 276 
Broch, Major, 206 
Brooks, Dr W. D. W., 216 
Buckley, Mrs H., 183, 193-4, 216-17 
Budapest Congress (1894), 45 
Builoch, W., 40 
Burns, John, 51 

Burroughs Wellcome & Co., 184 
Bustinza, Prof. F., 229, 231 



CALV,J., 94 

Cameron, J., 201-3, 205, 211-12 

Carrel, 88 



289 



Chain, Prof. E. B., 135, 139, 160-7, 169, 

179, 188, 204, 211-12,276 
Chantcmesse, 44, 46 
Chelsea Arts Club, 77-8, 102, 131, 149, 
_ 213, 231, 234, 238, 259, 272 
Cheyne, Sir W. Watson, 40, 89-91 
Chloromycetin, 233 
Churchill, Sir W., 32, 210-11 
Clayden, W., 94-5, 193, 196, 198 
Clcgg, Dr H. A., 199-200 
Qutterbuck, P. W., 138-9 
Coburn, Dr A. F., 158 
Coghill, Dr R. D., 173, 191-2, 201 
Colebrook, Dr L., 4 on, 50, 70, 71, 79, 84, 

_ 9*> 94> H7> 154 

Compton, Dr A., 141, 191, 271 

Conant, Dr, 203 

Cooper, A. Duff (Lord Norwich), 208 

Cope, Sir Z., 36, 63, 106, 197-8, 213, 267 

Coutsouris-Voureka, Dr A., see Voureka, 

Dr A. Coutsouris- 
Craddock, Dr S., 131-6, 156-8, 167 
Craxton, V., 105, 197, 214, 215, 216, 268, 

269 

Cruickshank, Prof. R., 12, 65, 219 
Gushing, H., 93-4 

DAKIN, 88 

Dale, Sir H., 116, 136, 154, 185 

Daniels, Bebe (Mrs Ben Lyon), 200-1 

Darvel school, 23 

Davaine, Dr, 42 

Davis, Mrs Richard, 76, 78, 209 

Debr6, Prof. R., 54, 209 

Delaunay, Dr A., 12, 147 

Derby, Lord, 92 

Dctrez, Monseigneur, 228 

Doctor s Dilemma, The, 51-3, 194 

Domagk, 145 

Douglas, Capt. S., 48-9, 49-50, 84 

Dowden, Prof. E., 41 

Downic, Mrs A. W., 176 

Downie, Prof* A. W., 176 

Dreyer, 163 

Dubos, Dr, 43-4, 139, 155, 158 

Duchcsne, Dr, 129 

Duhamel, G., 208 

Duncan, Sir A., 183 

Duval, Prof. P., 94 

Dyers, Worshipful Company of, 238 

Dyson, Dr C. B., 104, 117, 156 

EDINBURGH, DUKE OF, 266 
Edinburgh University, 247-51 



INDEX 



Ehrlich, P., 51, 62, 66-8, 71, 81, 108, 130, 

145, 146, 148, 149, 277 
Einstein, 277 
Elisabeth, Queen of the Belgians, an, 

238 
Elizabeth, Queen, the Qpccn Mother, 

143, 267 
luard, P., 208 
Epstein (Rhodes Scholar), 161 
Evangelismos Hospital, Athens, 239, 241, 

254 

FAIRBANKS, DOUGLAS, JUN., 272 

Finlay, 262 

First World War, 83-98 

Fleming, Lady (Amalia), 11-12, 260-^3, 
see also Voureka, Dr A* Coutsoura- 

Fleming, Lady (Sarah M.), 8-103, 
*33> 158, 176, i77> !9i> X 9t> *ia 
219, 227, 229, 290, 231, 233-4, 235 

Fleming, Elizabeth (sister-in-law), 98, 99, 

*77> 234> *5 8 

Fleming, Grace (mother), 19, 25, 28, 280 
Fleming, Grace (sister), 20, 26 
Fleming, Hugh ( father), 19-20, 280 
Fleming, Hugh (grandfather), 19 
Fleming, Hugh (stepbrother), 19, 20, 24, 

25, 26, 28 

Fleming, John (brother), 20, 21, 22, 24-5, 

26, 27, 99, 144^-5, 233, 234 
Fleming, John (uncle), 28 
Fleming, Mary (grandmother), 19 
Fleming, Mary (stepsister), 19, 25, 26 
Fleming, Robert (brother), 12, 20-1, 

25, 26, 27, 28, 33, 35, 99, 178, 212, 
214, 234 
Fleming, Robert (son), 100-1, 177, 191, 

212, 219, 234, 272 
Fleming, Sir Alexander, 

birth and upbringing, 17-22 

schooling, 22-6 

first employment, 26-9 

in London Scottish, 27-8, 35, 71, 74 

enters St Mary s, 3ofF 

London Matriculation, 31 

methods of study and successes, 31-3 

becomes F.R.C.S., 34, 63 

joins Sir A. Wright, 36-8 

methods and record there, 54$" 

relations with Sir A. Wright, 55-65 

scientific style, 60 

Gold Medal (London) and Qfoeadle 
Medal (St Mary s), 63 

injects self with staphylococci, 64 

successes with salvarsan, 68-71 

view of psychology, 69-70 

diagnostic accuracy, 71-2 

social interests, 74-$ 



modifies Wasserman Reaction, 78 

in France with R.A,M.CX 84-97 

first marriage, oSflf 

Suffolk home (The Dhoon ) looft" 

and house in Chelsea, 102 

delivers Hunterian Lecture (1919), 

107^8 

investigates lyspzyme, 1 10-22 
experiments with 4 moulds% 
discovery of pencillin, 131-42 
and sulphonamides, 146-58 
death of brother John, 1 44-5 
perfection and negotiations for mass- 

production of penicillin, 159-75 
Regional Pathologist (H&rtficld), 1766? 
bombs on Ohtebea, house, *77-8 
Sir A, Wright s letter to The Times, 

182 

FJR..S,, 189-91 

huge demands for penicillin, 193 
activities in 1944 blitz, 193-4 
knighted (1944), 196-8 
Freedoms of London and Darvel, 199 
President of Society of General Micro 

biology, 199 
visits U.S.A., 201-5 
Harvard Doctorate, $03 
acclaimed in France, Belgium and 

Sweden, 206-12 
appointed Commander of the Legion 

of Honour, 208 
Pasteur Medal, 208 
three honorary degrees in Belgium, 

210-11 
with Chain and Florey, awarded Nobel 

Prize (1945), ail-is 
Gold Medal of Royal College of 

Stu^peons, 213 
succeeds Sir A. Wright as Principal, 



member of Acaddmie Septentrionale, 

228 

acclaim and honours in Spain, 229-31 
Freedom of Chelsea, 231 
member of Pontifical Academy of 

Sciences, audience with the Pope, 23 1 
visits U.S.A., 292-3 
death of first wife, 233-4 
significant observations (with Dr Am.a- 

lia Voureka) <mpf&tetts sttotro, 235-6 
visits Dublin, Leeds (for Addingham 

Medal), U.SA., Milan, Brazil, 

Rome, Brussels (to honour Prof. 

Jules Bordet), Stockholm (Nobel 

Institute), and Pakistan (UNESCO 

congress), 237-^0 
member of Commission of Internation 

al Scientific Conferences, 247 



29 



INDEX 



Rector of Edinburgh University, 247- 

5 1 
visits Switzerland (for World Health 

Organization), 251 
and Athens (for C.I.S.C.), 251-5 
explores Greece with Dr Amalia 

Voureka, 251-5 
Freedom of Athens, 254 
proposes to Dr Voureka, 255 
acclaimed in India, 256-7 
marriage to Dr Amalia Voureka, 258-9 
visits Cuba, 261-2 
and U.S.A., 262-3 
views on the National Health Service, 

264 
sudden illness prevents visit to Nice 

(Lady Fleming attends in his place), 

265-6 

at installation of the Duke of Edin 
burgh as Chancellor of Edinburgh 

University, 266-7 
visits France, 267 
resigns as Principal of Wright-Fleming 

Institute, 268-9 
plans new work and visit to Middle 

East, 269-70, 271-2 
burglary at Chelsea house, 270-1 
death, 272-3 

burial and tributes, 274-80 
Fleming, Tom (stepbrother), 19, 20, 24, 

25-6, 28 
Flood, P., 156 

Florey, Dr Ethel (Lady), 159, 188 
Florey, Sir H., 139, 159-75, *79* 181, 

183-5, *88 204, 211-12, 276 

Foch, Marshal F., 97 
Fonbrune, Dr de, 236-7 
Fourneau, Prof., 147 
Frederika, Queen of Greece, 254 
Freeman, Dr J., 36-7, 40, 50, 51, 54, 58, 
62, 71, 72-3, 78-9, 80, 82, 84, 88-9, 

r, 94 3;4 

Fry, Dr R. M., 72, 105 

Fyffe, D. J., 246-7 



GARDNER, A. D., i6in, 167 
Gaulle, Gen. Charles de, 207, 208 
George, King of Greece, 254 
George V, King, 143 
George VI, King, 196 
Glaxo Laboratories Ltd, 184, 207 
Gratia, Prof., 103 
Gray, Ronald, 75-8, 190 
Greece, Prime Minister of, 252 
Greene, Prof, Clayton, 33 
Gruber, 45-6 



Guedalla, P., 194 
Guell, Vizconde de, 229 

HATTDOW, PROF. A., 278-9 

Haffkine, 46 

Haldane, Lord, 51 

Hammersley, Mrs, 75-6 

Handfield-Jones, R. M., 189-90 

Hayden, Dr, 73 

Heatley, N. G., 165, 166, 169, 170, 172, 

*73> 174 

Heyningen, Dr W. E. van, 218-19 
Hollis, Dr, 65 
Holt, Dr, 141-2, 145 
Hopkins, Sir F. Gowland, 160 
Horner, Lady, 51, 62 
Hudson, Dr R., 176-7 
Hughes, Dr W. H., 39, 197, 217, 228, 234 
Huisman, G,, 228 
Hunt, Dr J., 272-3 

I.C.L, 184 

International Congress of Microbiology 



)> 158 

loakimoglou, Prof. G., 254 
Iveagh, Lord, 141, 143 

JAMES, DR G. W. B., 12, 68, 83, 92-3 
Jenner, Dr, 43, 44, 60 
Jennings, Dr M. A., 167, 228 
Jennings, L., 131 
Johnson, Dr Samuel, 18, 62 
Jones, Dr Carmalt, 33, 34, 50 
Joubert, 129 

KAMINKER, 208 

Keith, Dr N., 94, 95-6, 262-3 

Kemball, Bishop & Co, Ltd, 184 

Kenny, M., 147 

Kent (Florey s assistant), 166 

Keogh, Sir A., 85 

Kilmarnock Academy, 23 

Koch, Capt., 206 

Koch, Prof., 42, 44 

Kolle, 47 

Kramer, Dr L R. H., 234 

Kruif, Paul de, i8sn 

LAIDLAW, DR, 153-4 

Laporte, Dr, 209 

La Touche, Prof. C. J., 127, 132 

Le Corbusier, 208 

Lee, Prof. Roger, 93-4, 203, 204, 209, 

256, 263 
Lee, Mrs Roger, 256, 263, 266 



291 



INDEX 



Lemierre, 209 

Leopold II, King of the Belgians, 212 

Lister, Lord, 10, 85, 89-90, 91, 128-9, 

142, 147 

Loewe, Dr, 185-6 
London Hospital, 40 
London Scottish Regt, 27-8, 35-6, 71, 74> 

83, 240 

Loudoun, Earl of, 19, 21 
Lovell, Prof. R., 138-40 
Lysozyme, 110-22, 145, 157, 158, 159, 

160-1, 204 

McCALL, SIR A., 133-4 

McElligott, Dr G. L. M,, 149-50 

McElroy, Bernard (father-in-law), 98 

McElroy, Elizabeth, see Fleming, Eliza 
beth 

McElroy, Sarah M., see Fleming, Lady 
(Sarah M.) 

McGowan, Lord, 248 

McKeen, John, 249 

Maclean, L H., 151 

MacLeod, D., 148-9, 189 

MacMillan, Mrs A,, 219, 233-4 

Malta fever, 46 

*M. and B. , 178 

Marie-Jos^, Queen of Italy, 230 

Marshall, Mrs A,, 234, 243 

Martin, Dr R., 147, 208 

Martley, 121-2 

Mary, Queen, 153 

Matthews, 50 

Maxwell, Dr, 184 

May, Dr A.J., 59 

May & Baker Ltd, 184 

May, Ben, 226-7, 236-7, 239, 260, 268-9 

May, Dr R., 217 

Mesnil, 67 

MetchnikorT, 46, 48, 51, 113-14 

Microbiological Society, 244 

Montgomery, Harold (nephew), 234, 248 

Montgomery, Lily, 78 

Montgomery, Viscount, 210-11 

Moore, George, 76, 98 

Moran, Lord, 32, 105-6, 143-4 

Morgan, C., 208 

Morgan, P., 84 

Mortimer, A., 184, 185, 187 

Moulton, Lord, 61 

NEILSON, PROF., 204-5 

Netchk, Capt., 206 

Netley Hospital, 45-7, 48 

Newcomb, Prof. W. D., 71-2, 79, 177 

Newton, Sir Isaac, 189 

Nicolle, M., 67, 79 

Nitti, 146 

Noon, L., 49-50, 71, 78-9, 80, 104 



OOILVIE, DR A. C, F., 214-15 
Oklahoma Foundation, 232-3 
Orr-Ewing, J., 167 

PAGE, DR, 74 

Pannett, Prof. C. A., 31, 32-3, 57, 193, 

*74-5 
Paracelsus, 67 
Parke, Davis & Co. Ltd, 61 
Pasteur Institute, 46, 48, 206, 208, 219, 

226, 236 
Pasteur, Louis, 10, 42, 44, 60, 81, 123, 

129, 204, 208, 2 1 8, 219, 232, 249-50, 

277 

Pegram family, 74-5, loo 
Pegram, Marjory, 74-5, 101 
Penicillin, 127, 131-42, 145-6, 148, 151, 

i4> 1561 *57 *5$> *59 *&!, 162, 

103-75, 1 79-92 205, 206-9, 229, 230, 

233, 234-6, 247, 250, 257, 266, 276-9 
Penicillin, General Committee cf, 185 
PfeifFer, 47 

Pfizer, Charles, & Co., Inc., 185-6, 202 
Pijper, 235 
Pollender, Dr, 42 
Poole, Major-Gen., 187 
Porteous, Dr A. B., 73, 78, 96 
Portmann, Prof. G., 256, 267-8 
Portmann, Mme, 267 
Prontosil, 145-7 
Proteus vu!gans t 234-5 
Pryce, Prof. D, M., 121-2, 124-5, 1 5$> 1 77 
Pulvertaft, Prof., 179-80, 183 

QUEEN CHARLOTTE S HOSPITAL, 147 

RAISTRICK, PROF, H., 138, 140, 141, 142, 

164, 184, 185, 207 
Ramon, 208 

Reed, Ethel, see Fiorey, Dr Ethel 
Reed, Walter, 262 
Reid, Dr R. D., 158 
Revelstoke, Lord, 106 
Rhodes Foundation, 106, 159 
Richards, Prof. A. N., 159, 175 
Ridley, Dr F., 113, 114, 119, 134, 137, 

140, 164 

Rigler, Dr L., 257 
Ritchie, A. M., 259 
Roberts, Dr, 160 
Rockefeller Foundation, 159, 162 
Rockefeller Institute, 43n, 155 
Rogers, Dr K. B., 141, 151 
Romansky, Capt., 205 
Roosevelt, Mrs E., 272 
Roux, 44-5, 8 1 

Royal Academy, 238, 245, 246 
Runciman, Steven, 221 



292 



f^^r L^^^ DE "> 33-4 



INDEX 



Todd, Dr E. W., 104. 168 2*6 
wu/j, a n.QspiiaL Lrazette, 03, b" 4n no Trefrml P f i c r r 

: TS?2^3r1^ 5- TVefbuai; ^jftg* ** 

Irias, 229 



St 



Medical School, 33, 39, IO5 , 



St Mary s Rifle Club, 36 
Sanchy del Monte, A., 262 
Sanders, Dr A. G. ? 167, 170 
Sargent, J. S., 76 /y 

Schoental, Mrs, 163 
S6diHot, 42 
Semmelweiss, Dr, 42 



Shiga, Dr, 67 

Sir William Dunn School (Oxford) 160 

163, 164 

Sloggett, Sir A., 92 
Smith, J.L., 185:6 
Society of General Microbiology, I99 , 

Spilsbury, Sir B., 50 
Steer, Wilson, 76, 78 
Stewart, Dr G. T., 220, 235-6 
Stewart, H., 248-9 
Stirling, Marion, 22, 210 
Stoker, Sir Thornby, 98 

Stratful, D., 177-8 
Suffragette Movement, 62, 80 
Sulphonamides, 146-55, 171, 176 
Symons, Arthur, 98 

TAMARGO, MARGARITA, 261-2 
Taylor, Dr J., 154-5 

Xherapeutic Research Corporation, 184 
Thorn, Dr C., 127, 172-3 
Thomson, 95 
Times, The, on penicillin, 181-2 



Trueta, J., 164 
Tuffier, Dr, 94 

UNIVERSITY COLLEGE HOSPITAL, 71 

VALLERY-RADOT, PROF., 206, 208 
Voureka, Dr Amalia Coutsouris-, 221-8 

234-5> 236-9, 241-5, 251-9, then see 

Fleming, Lady (Amalia) 
Voureka, Manoli, 221 
Vuillemin, 128 

WAR, see First World War 
Warren, Dr, 149 
Webb-Johnson, Lord, r 2 8n, 213 
Weir, Sir C., 184 

Wellcome Research Laboratories 106 
Wells, J., 58-9 * 

Wertheimer family, 76 
Westling, 127 



ui > 
Wheeler, Dr, 51 

Widal, 44, 45-6 

Willcox, Dr G., 102 

Wilson, Dr C. M., see Moran, Lord 

Wright, Rev. C., 41 

Wright, Sir Almroth, 12, 36-8, ^Q-^, 
65, 66-8, 70-3, 76, 78-82, 8 4 -5 53 
103-8, in, n 3 , U 6, 117, 121/130, 
J 34 137, 143, 144, 145, 150, 151, 
*54-5> 176, 182-3, 189, 197, 204, 
213-14, 232, 250, 264, 275, 278 

YEATS, W. B., 98 

Yersin, 44 

Young, Dr M. Y., 145, 234 



293 






V 









\ 




i- 1 



100491